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D'varim/Deuteronomy 26:14 I have obeyed the voice of the L-rd my G-d; I have done according to all that He commanded me.
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This comes at the end of the formal declaration that each Israelite is to make when bringing the tithe for the poor in each third year of the agricultural cycle to the Temple in Jerusalem. The tithe, without exception and in a fit state of ritual purity, is to be brought into the Temple to feed "the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements" (26:12, JPS). The declaration then forms the basis of seekingHaShem's blessing: I have done exactly what you told me, so "Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the soil You have given us, a land flowing with milk and honey, as You swore to our fathers" (v. 15, JPS). We've done our bit, now do Yours! Tigay comments that "the first-person formulation expresses the idea that G-d commanded the farmer personally and not only his ancestors"; this applies to every farmer in every generation: although Israel is commanded to do it, the command is carried out by individuals, so each individual is responsible, in their own right, for both separating and bringing the tithe and for making the declaration, regardless of the actions or inactions of others.
Targum Onkelos, in its usual effort to remove anthropomorphism1, replaces - literally, "I have listened in the voice of" - with , "I have accepted the word or wisdom of". The switch from "listen" to "accept" is significant because we can listen to or hear a command without having the slightest interest in or agreement with it, but nevertheless then go ahead and obey it from a sense of compulsion or fear. "I accept", on the other hand, implies understanding, agreement and acknowledgement that this is the right thing to do. This alters the whole tone of the declaration from "I have heard what you said and done it" to "I have heard what you said and not only agree that it is right and appropriate, but I have also done it".
Nechama Leibowitz suggests that the declaration before the L-rd is puzzling. She quotes Isaac Arama asking, "What point was there in demanding that the worshipper recount what he did and what he refrained from doing - so long as he performed the commandment in its proper manner?" Similarly, Abravanel asks "What need is there for the person to boast orally about what he has done?" Leibowitz then points to the answer given by Sefer HaChinuch: "At the root of this precept lies man's greatest difference from the animals: his power of speech. So, as many people are more careful about what they say than what they do, G-d commanded both that we should not sin in the way we 'do' the commandment and also that we should attest - with our own mouths - at the Sanctuary that we have done the commandment correctly and not cheated or lied about it". Arama also giving an answer: "You shall say this to indicate that all this was done at the behest of the commandment and not for any other reason", i.e. that the tithe command was obeyed for its own sake, simply because it was a commandment, Leibowitz concludes, "the declaration was not ordained in order to ensure the observance of the precept but in order to promote its wholehearted and sincere performance".
Another verse from the Torah says, "Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin" (D'varim 24:16, ESV). This is echoed by the prophets: "everyone shall die for his own sin" (Jeremiah 31:30, ESV) and "Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4, JPS). These emphasise that while the nation has been given the commandments as a whole, each person is responsible for their own actions. So we too, as believers in Messiah, are a commanded people, but have each been individually commanded; we each have to respond individually to those commands.
The Book of Acts relates that the first congregation in Jerusalem lived in a very communal way, with believers who owned property selling it and bringing the money into the congregation to meet the needs of those who had nothing. Ananias and Sapphira were such a couple, who sold a piece of property; only "with his wife's knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles' feet" (Acts 5:2, ESV). Immediately, the Ruach told Peter that something was wrong: "'Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.' When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last" (vv. 3-5, ESV). What was wrong here? As Peter says, the land belonged to Ananias and so did the money once he had sold it - why shouldn't he keep some of the money for himself? Implied in this part of the story, but explicit in the second where Peter asks Sapphira about it - "'Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.' And she said, 'Yes, for so much'" (v. 8, ESV) - is what Ananias and his wife had said: that they, presumably like others, had donated the entire sale price of the property, when in fact they had retained some of it. Their words didn't match their deeds; they had lied to create the impression that they had given everything, when they had only given part. As James so adroitly points out, "the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!" (James 3:5, ESV).
We are currently in the month of Elul, preparing for the start of the High Holy Days with Rosh HaShana (or Yom Teruah to give it its biblical name). At the start of Rosh HaShana, just before the sun sets on the last day of Elul, we conduct the ritual of Kol Nidrei - All Vows. This dates from the days of the Spanish Inquisition, when many Jews were forced to convert, at least outwardly, to Catholicism to save the lives of themselves and their families. Nevertheless, many of these Jews continued to practice some Judaism covertly, under cover. The purpose of Kol Nidrei was to allow them to pray with the Jewish community during the High Holy Days in spite of having appeared to have made an oath to become Catholic. In essence, it asks G-d to cancel vows made before Him that were spoken by mouth under duress, but never confirmed in the heart. Meeting with other Jews at this time of year, when the Inquisition - being aware of the calendar - was particularly alert, was a highly risky business, but many considered it important, even if only once a year, to set their mouths back in line with their hearts.
Getting our mouth and our hearts in line is essential for our relationship with G-d, who knows our hearts and hears our words and is not deceived by either. Basing his argument on words from the Torah, "the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it" (D'varim 30:14, ESV), Rav Sha'ul wants to make sure that the mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles in Rome understand: "if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is L-rd and believe in your heart that G-d raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9, ESV). Faith is not just an inward feeling (in the heart) or an external expression (through the mouth); it is both. Both are needed to complete the transaction: "with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved" (v. 10, ESV). When we share our testimony of faith in Messiah Yeshua it must be an outward expression of what we believe and know to be true inside. When we do the work of the kingdom, getting our hands dirty by helping people, that too must be an outwards expression of the inner reality, otherwise it is simply trying to earn a ticket to heaven by doing good things.
This is what the declaration made by the ancient Israelites meant: I have honestly and faithfully served my G-d by giving the tithe for the poor, because He provided enough for all of us. We too in this age need to have our hands, our hearts and our mouths in a straight line: serving G-d in whatever He requires of us, faithfully and honestly, because He has provided Yeshua and relationship with Himself for us.
1. - attributing human qualities or emotions to G-d; in this case, the idea that G-d who is entirely "other" should have a voice or that man could be capable of hearing it
Further Study: Ezekiel 18:20; Luke 12:8-12; 1 Peter 1:20-25
Can you honestly say that you have obeyed everything that G-d has commanded
you? That's a tough call, but G-d Himself enables us to do it. Why not ask
Him to help you today?
© Jonathan Allen, 2012
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© Jonathan Allen, 2012
Your turn - what do you think of the ideas in this drash ?Like most print and online magazines, we reserve the right to edit or publish only those comments we feel are edifying in tone and content.