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Grant truth to Jacob, kindness Abraham, as you swore to our forefathers from ancient times (Michah 7:20)
In the first, second, fourth, and fifth years of the seven-year shemittah cycle, Jews living in Eretz Yisrael were commanded to separate a tenth of their crops and bring them to Jerusalem to eat. In the third and six years of the cycle, that tenth was given to the poor as ma’aser ani.
At first glance, it would seem that the order of ma’aser sheni and ma’aser ani should have been reversed. Why were the landowners not required to first share with the poor and only subsequently to enjoy their produce in Jerusalem. In other words, why was ma’aser ani not given at the beginning of the three-year cycle, and only then ma’aser sheni?
Rambam (Hilchos Matnos Aniyim 10:2) writes that one must give tzedakah with a joyous countenance, and that giving with a disgruntled mien negates the mitzvah. Thus we see that the attitude with which one gives tzedakah is intrinsic to the mitzvah itself.
The prophet Michah (5:17) defines that which G-d wants from us as “to do justice, love, chesed, and walk modestly with G-d.” And in the concluding blessing of Shemoneh Esrei we thank Hashem for giving us, “through the light of His countenance a Torah of life and a love of chesed.” It is not enough to do chesed. One must love chesed.
More than any other positive commandment, writes Rambam, tzedakah is a sign of the essence of a Jew. It is the very fiber of Jewish existence and the source of our future redemption. (Pirkei Avos 2:13), refers to an attitude which fosters chesed.
The goal of our striving in this world is the perfection of our neshamos. The mitzvos are the means to achieving this goal. There are two mitzvos which enable us to emulate Hashem as He relates to us. ON is talmud Torah. Through the study of Torah we attach ourselves to G-d’s mind, as it were, as He created the world. The second is chesed. The basis of all existence is G-d’s desire to do chesed to His creation. Hence when we do acts of chesed with a strong desire, we follow in Hashem’s footsteps.
Avraham discovered Hashem through the characteristic of chesed of recognizing the chesed inherent in the creation. He so longed to perform acts of chesed, that even when he sat in great agony after his own bris milah, he suffered when no guests appeared. Our mother Rivkah, too, was distinguished by her love of chesed. It was for that quality alone that Eliezer tested her.
We are now prepared to understand the order of ma’aser sheni and ma’aser ani. By commanding us to bring one-tenth of our crops to Jerusalem to rejoice there, Hashem taught us two vital lessons. The first is that our material possessions are a present from Hashem and He can dictate how we use that material bounty. The second is that using material wealth in the way prescribed by Hashem generates feelings of joy and sanctity.
Once we have internalized these lessons in the first two years of the cycle, we can offer that bounty to the poor in the third year — not perfunctorily but with a true love of chesed.
The letters of Elul hint to the verse, “ am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me,” signifying our intensified relationship with Hashem leading up to the Yamim Noraim. To achieve this we must condition ourselves not only to do chesed but to love it.
Reprinted with permission from Artscroll Mesorah Publications, ltd.
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