Ma’asrot Sanctify Material Things
“Look down from Your holy dwelling, from heaven” [Devarim 26:15] — we have fulfilled that which You have decreed upon us (now we ask that) You do that which You promised us “Look down from Your holy dwelling, from heaven and bless Your people Israel” with sons and daughters; “and the Land You have given us” with dew and rain and with offspring of cattle; “as You swore to our fathers, a Land flowing milk and honey” that gives good taste to the fruit.
[Mishna, Ma’aser Sheni 5:13]
One who grows fruits or vegetables in Eretz Yisrael is obligated to separate teruma and ma’asrot from his produce. Chapter five of Mishnayot Ma’aser Sheni contains a number of mishnayot which deal with “biur ma’asrot,” which is the obligation to separate teruma and ma’aser and present them to those who are entitled to receive them. Erev Pesacḥ of the fourth year of the shemitta cycle and of the shemitta year itself, there is an additional mitzva of the “declaration of ma’aser” (vidui ma’aser). On the last day of Pesacḥ, the farmer declared that he had indeed separated and given teruma and ma’aser in accordance with the halacha. The formula of the declaration is presented by the Torah in Parashat Ki Tavo [Devarim 26:13-15]. Our Mishna deals with vidui ma’aser.
The full posuk (verse) which is the Mishna’s text reads: “Look down from Your holy dwelling, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the Land You have given us as You swore to our fathers, a Land flowing milk and honey.” The Mishna elucidates the various parts of the posuk. “And bless Your people Israel,” the Mishna explains, is a prayer that God grant children; “and the Land You have given us” is a prayer that the Land be blessed with dew and rain and fertility of livestock; “as You swore to our fathers, a Land flowing milk and honey” is a prayer that the fruit of the Land should have a good taste.
Question on the Mishna
We can easily understand the prayers that God grant children, sufficient rain and fertile animals, but why pray that the fruit of the Land be tasty? Is this the crucial aspect of God’s promise of a Land flowing milk and honey?
Through understanding the reason that the unique Land of Israel is blessed with physical abundance, we shall answer our question.
Influence on the Pleasures of Life
Rabbi Kook zt”l [Ein Aya, Zera’im 26] explains the importance of the taste of the fruit of the Land, noting that it is necessary for Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel), and indeed, indicates the greatness of Am Yisrael.
Wealth and worldly pleasures are neither desirable nor good for people of a lowly status, who do not have internal motivation to advance themselves and are inclined towards laziness. Physical pleasures, in fact, would be harmful for such people. Rather, the absence of pleasures and the need to work is beneficial. Am Yisrael is possessed of a noble and exalted soul, and therefore for it, tangible wealth and physical pleasures will not lead to laziness. Quite the opposite, they will facilitate contentment and allow spiritual advancement, through which the enlightenment of Am Yisrael will have a greater influence on the world. The Jerusalem Talmud states [Ta’anit 4:5]: “Rabbi Chanina says: ‘Forty years before Am Yisrael was exiled to Babylonia, they planted date palms there, due to the fervor for the sweetness which inclines the tongue towards Torah.’” The good taste of the fruit of the Land refines a person, making one happier, and this connects him to Torah study.
While Am Yisrael did sink into materialism, which brought it to sin and ultimately caused destruction and exile, this is temporary, a passing malady. The refining experience of exile returns Am Yisrael to its true nature as a uniquely holy people. Thus, the promise to the Forefathers of “a Land flowing milk and honey” constitutes great tidings, indicating that Am Yisrael is an exalted nation, which is elevated through tangible and spiritual wealth. Tangible wealth facilitates shining Am Yisrael’s light within the world and allows the nation to spread God’s name throughout the world.
Ma’asrot Sanctify Material Things
The mitzva of ma’asrot allows the abundance of tangible things to have their proper effect of being the basis for elevating Am Yisrael. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on our posuk, explains that the mitzva of giving ma’asrot is intended to elevate man’s connection to material things. Giving ma’aser teaches that our material possessions must be used to foster the spirit in which Torah inspires us to live, that our tangible wealth is to be used to advance our spiritual welfare and to sanctify God’s name. Achieving the proper attitude towards material things is a necessary condition for spiritual elevation. If one sinks into materialism, considering that an end in itself, he will be unable to advance spiritually or seek to reach higher goals, such as doing ḥessed and helping others.
For Am Yisrael, sanctifying the material and creating the appropriate attitude towards it is a national goal. For Am Yisrael, tangible wealth constitutes an opportunity to sanctify God’s name, by showing the world that material things can be used as a means of serving God, rather than as a barrier to His service or as a goal in itself.
Our Forefathers were informed that they would be given “a Land flowing milk and honey,” a Land blessed with tangible abundance. This abundance and the sweetness of the Land’s fruit elevate Am Yisrael. At its roots, Am Yisrael is primarily interested in spreading God’s wisdom throughout the world. Material abundance furthers this goal. Thus, we understand why it is specifically Eretz Yisrael, the holiest of lands, which is suited to being the land blessed with physical abundance. Material abundance is fitting and necessary for the holy nation within the Holy Land.
Giving ma’asrot sanctifies the material, allowing it to properly affect Am Yisrael. Sanctifying the material sanctifies God’s name as well.
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