Mitzvot of Recitation

I heard the basic gist of this idea from R’ Yosef Blau, at a shaleshudis at YU about 9 years ago. He said it in the name of the Rav, zt”l. I have embellished it with some structural observations.

The Book of Devarim can be divided into three basic sections: the beginning, the middle, and the end. The beginning gives the background for why we should keep God’s command, the middle gives the content of that command, and the end reinforces the obligation to keep that command (of course that’s an oversimplification). The beginning includes the first 3 parshiyot of Devarim. The middle starts in Re’eh and ends at with shlishi of Ki Tavo (it should be obvious where the end ends).

The last two segments before the end of the middle, legal section discuss the obligation to recite particular formulae when bringing bikkurim and at the end of the triennial ma’aser cycle.

Several questions can now be raised:
  • Why are these two mitzvot singled out to be accompanied by special recitations. Very few mitzvot have that property.

  • Why are these recitations chosen to conclude the legal section of Devarim?

  • Given that the divisions of our parshiyot are generally intuitive and thematic (as R’ Samet often points out), it seems extremely unintuitive to have the vast majority of the Parsha belong in the ‘end’, but include two relatively short segments that belong in the middle.

For starters, one may ask about the relationship between the mitzvah of bringing bikkurim and the accompanying recitation. Does the recitation deepen and explain the mitzvah, or does it provide something that the mitzvah itself cannot provide. R’ Samet takes the former approach (here). For several reasons, I think he’s off the mark, and I will take the latter approach.

The mitzvah of bikkurim is one of the most intensely personal mitzvot in the Torah. The individual farmer, who owns his own land, having labored all winter, finally sees the literal first fruits of his effort. He is enjoined to take that moment, naturally predisposed to be celebrated as a personal triumph, and dedicate those fruits to be an homage to God. It is strictly between the farmer and God. There are no others in this process.

Contrast that with the mitzvot related to tithing. The gifts to the Priests, the Levites, the poor, and to support the capital economy are all about social welfare. They are the types of obligations that one would feel duty bound, as a member of society, to be concerned with and to contribute to.

Yet, each accompanying recitation emphasizes the exact OPPOSITE of what the mitzvah itself emphasizes. The bikkurim recitation sees the individual farmer in the context of Israel’s foundational narrative. It’s not just about God and the farmer, there’s an entire national story that forms the background to this. That story is summarized, in the plural, before the farmer can get to the point where he can say, “and now I have brought the first fruits of the land…”. Lest the mitzvah become TOO personal, the national context is invoked.

In contrast, the ma’aser recitation reads like a laundry list of personal accomplishment. “I have completed…I have given…as you commanded me…I did not transgress and I did not forget. I did not eat…I did not give…I listened…I performed…”. The Torah is emphasizing that though the mitzvot of ma’aser might have tremendous social benefits, we must not ignore that we are still the commanded doing the Will of the Commander. The personal, private element – one man and God – can and must be present even in the most ‘socially responsible’ of all mitzvot.

Taken together, these two recitations have a common theme: neither the individual nor the collective can be ignored. We must not focus on the personal if it means neglecting responsibility to the community. Yet, one’s fealty to the community cannot come at the expense of one’s personal relationship with God. Both elements – the individualist and the socialist – are essential ingredients to carrying out the Torah’s ideal of communal structures which do not undermine individual expression, of becoming ‘communities of individuals’.

Thus, these segments serve as a segue into the final segments of the Torah, where the tension between the communal and the individual often come to the fore. It is with this balance that we understand the discussions at the end of the Torah of mutual and collective responsibility. Once the necessary balance between the poles of individualism and socialism have been staked out, a movement toward the appropriate attitude can be articulated and shaped in many ways.

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