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A Timely Lesson from our Farmers

The month of Elul is characterized by special customs instituted by our Sages in preparation for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. We blow the shofar each morning at the conclusion of the Shacharit prayers. We add the recitation of Psalm 27 at the end of both the morning and evening prayers. In Sephardic tradition a third minhag is to say Selichot (special prayers asking for forgiveness) each morning beginning on the first of Elul; Ashkenaz communities begin saying Selichot the week before Rosh Hashana. Each of these customs aims at 2 goals: confession of our misguided behavior during the past year and redirecting our energy to the good for the coming year. The Sages created and instituted these different practices in the expectation that at least one of these performances will work to initiate permanent positive change in our attitudes and behaviors.

When we think of the word “confession,” we immediately associate with the process of admitting wrong behavior. Perhaps we recall scenes from TV shows or the movies where a confession is obtained only after a long and arduous interrogation, “under the lights.” In most cases, though, we think of the simple situation where once confronted with our actions, we own up to our bad behavior.

True, in the Selichot petitions as well as during prayer services on Yom Kippur, we find our liturgy requires us to mention a litany of bad behaviors. We verbally confess whether the improper behavior was done willfully, accidentally, or even without our knowing the activity was wrong to do. This verbal utterance alone is worthless without any accompanying sincerity, resolve, and change. Of course one need not wait until the month of Elul or Yom Kippur to confess. It is just that at this time, as a nation, the Torah requires each of us to engage in the mitzvah of teshuva, self-improvement.

The Torah, however, sees the mitzvah of confession in a more expanded and unique way. In this week’s portion of Key Tavo, we are instructed to confess not because we did something wrong. Surprisingly, we are obligated to confess precisely because we followed the mitzvah exactly as stated by the Torah and prescribed by our Sages. This mitzvah is known as the “confession of the tithes.” There is three-year cycle of tithes for certain agricultural produce grown in the land of Israel. The farmer makes this confession in front of Hashem at the Beit Hamikdash every three years. The precise wording of this confession is found in Devarim 26:13-15. Upon closer look, it could be argued that this confession seems more like a declaration. Why is this declaration, then, referred to as a confession, and what is the nature of this confession?

Let us understand the Torah’s idea of confession more deeply. We concur with the world’s notion of confession when wrong is committed. This conscious realization and verbalization are crucial to real personality self-help. But when things are done right, why is the person required to declare that in fact, he or she kept the mitzvah properly? Isn’t that haughty? Won’t that lead to an inflated ego?

Giving tithes is a form of imposed tzedaka, charity. During this three-year cycle, there were different recipients of each yearly tithe. The farmer, in making this declaration, is caused to reflect on his own internal motivations for fulfilling the command of these tithes. The Torah sees great benefit accruing to the individual who examines even his or her good deeds. This “introspection,” a better translation of the Hebrew text than “confession,” is at the heart of this mitzvah.

The farmer must confront and review his personality. There are many challenges to giving tzedaka. Giving of your wealth to people you don’t know, with whom you have no relationship, is one obstacle to performing the mitzvah of tzedaka. The farmer must not only overcome natural feelings of stinginess but he must factor in the added dimension of his physical toil. He could rightly claim he has expended personal energy and backbreaking work to reap the harvest. Now, these lazy or less ambitious people reap the harvest without having lifted a finger to produce it.

But there is an even more subtle and beguiling aspect to the farmer’s psychology. Lurking in the deep recesses of the personality is the attitude that he or she is a generous person. Here the person projects a sense of altruism that masks those true natural underlying feelings mentioned above. Not being honest, people can kid themselves into thinking they don’t have petty feelings of selfishness or social superiority. People may do the right thing but perhaps for reasons less than truly philosophical motivations. For example, people may give tzedaka to receive a tax “write-off,” to receive an honor, or to achieve some political gain. Their giving is worthy but the internal perfection for which the mitzvah is designed is still missing. Religious people may also be motivated to give charity because what they really want is for God to reward them with even greater physical prosperity. Thus, they give but for a personal and perhaps selfish reason.

The Torah thus requires the person who fulfilled the mitzvot of tithing to be introspective. True this technical mitzvah of “introspection” applies only to a person who harvested certain crops grown in Israel; but the idea and philosophy behind this mitzvah transfers to every person and to every mitzvah we perform. True personal advancement is only possible when we scrutinize our bad and good behavior. In this case, the framer declares he did the mitzvah exactly the way God commanded. The farmer declares the proper motivation… to live in line with the will of God, to imitate the ways of God, always seeking to perform acts of charity and loving-kindness even to those we don’t know or who have no claim on us.

As we come closer to the Days of Awe and Judgment, let us use the example of the farmer’s declaration and apply it to ourselves. It is this unique and expanded concept of confession/introspection that should propel us in everything we do, not just at this time of year but all year long, day in and day out. Through this process may Hashem grant each of us a renewed and improved relationship with each other and with God.

Shabbat Shalom