Reciprocity as the Groundwork for Repentance

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Avinoam Stillman

Parshat Ki Tavo recounts two texts recited in the Temple when farmers brought bikkurim, first fruits, and when they brought ma’aser ani, the tithe given every third year to the poor. Mishnah Bikkurim 2:2 states:

…המעשר והבכורים טעונים הבאת מקום וטעונים ודוי…

“…the tithe and the first fruits require bringing to the place [the Temple] and require vidui…”

The term vidui is used in rabbinic literature for various liturgical recitations, including for offering bikkurim, for ma’aser, and for animal sacrifices. Reading Parshat Ki Tavo today, in Elul 5775, our first association with the term vidui is probably the “confession” of sins we recite repeatedly leading up to and on Yom Kippur. As Maimonides codifies in Hilchot Teshuvah 1:1, vidui is the obligatory verbal expression of teshuvah. What unifies these disparate meanings of the term vidui? Verbal declarations, whether of appreciation for G-d’s blessing or of the faithful fulfillment of G-d’s command in the cases of bikkurim and ma’aser, or, in the case of teshuvah, of recognition and regret of sin, create a reciprocal relationship between human beings and G-d. A relationship with G-d, like any other relationship, cannot, by definition, be one-sided. Without the belief that our actions matter to G-d, and the faith that our attempts to reach G-d produce Divine responses, teshuvah is meaningless. Thus, developing our understanding of the importance of reciprocity in both human and Divine relationships lays the groundwork for teshuvah.

The Palestinian Talmud, at the beginning of Masekhet Bikkurim, discusses whether a tree that is propagated using a process known as הברכה (“layering” in English), in which a branch of an “elder” tree is grown into the ground and cultivated as a “child” tree, can be a valid source of bikkurim if the tree passes through property not owned by the owner of the tree. The Talmud rules that neither the “elder” tree nor the “child” tree is valid if either passes out of their owner’s domain. This follows the principle that

כשם שילדה חיה מן הזקינה כך הזקינה חיה מן הילדה

“Just as the child lives from the elder, thus does the elder live from the child.”

Here is another model of reciprocity, one in which, as mori ve-rebbi Rav Re’em HaCohen of Yeshivat Otniel pointed out, generations are interdependent. What holds true for trees is true for humans as well, as per Deutoronomy 20:19; כי האדם עץ השדה, “for a person is a tree of the field.” Unless both elders and children remain in the same domain, maintain mutual respect and recognize their reciprocal dependence, no first fruits can be brought, none of their products are blessed.

Mishna Ma’aser Sheni 5:13, also found in Sifrei Piska 303 on Deutoronomy 26:15, uses a verse from the vidui ma’aser to elaborate G-d and Israel’s reciprocity:

“השקיפה ממעון קדשך מן השמים” – עשינו מה שגזרת עלינו אף אתה עשה מה שהבטחתנו …

“Gaze from Your holy abode, from the heavens” (Deut. 26:15) – We have done what You decreed upon us, so too You do what You promised us…

The fulfillment of G-d’s command to provide for the poor creates a reciprocal responsibility for G-d to fulfill the promise of prosperity. As the Alter Rebbe notes in Likkutei Torah on Parshat Re’eh, the month of Elul is an acronym for Song of Songs 6:3,  אני לדודי ודודי לי, “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.” In both our human and our Divine relationships, then, Elul is a time to foster the interdependence and responsiveness that allow us to do teshuvah in the coming year.

Avinoam Stillman (SBM 2015), a student of Yeshivat Otniel , is entering his third year at Columbia College, majoring in Religion.


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