Parashat Ki Tavo – 5782

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Ki Tavo
By Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman

Parashat Ki Tavo begins with two mitzvot which are declarations. The first is that of Bikkurim – the first fruits. This declaration is very familiar to us as it forms the basis of the Maggid section of the seder (Arami Oveid Avi… (Deut 26:5-10). The rabbis call this statement “mikra bikkurim” – “the declaration of the first fruits”.

The second declaration concerns the end of the three year cycle of tithes. In short, all the tithes of the cycle had to be properly distributed during three years. On the last day after each three year cycle, a declaration at the Temple was made. Here is that declaration:

I have removed the holy things (tithes) from my house, and I have also given it to the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan and to the widow, according to whatever the commandment that You commanded me; I have not transgressed any of Your commandments and I have not forgotten. I did not eat it as a mourner, I did not consume it in a state of contamination, and I did not give it for the needs of the dead; I have listened to the voice of Hashem, my God; I have acted according to everything You commanded me.

Look down from Your holy abode, from the heavens, and bless Your people Israel, and the ground that You gave us, as You swore to our ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Interestingly, while the statement of first fruits is known by the rabbis as a “mikra” – a declaration, the same rabbis referred to the statement of tithes as a “vidui” – a confession. Yet take another look. Would you call this statement a vidui? Not only does it make no mention of any sin – quite to the contrary – it is a declaration of having done everything exactly right. And not only is it a statement of having done everything right – it seems to validate the demand of the Jew to God that God should now fulfill His end of the deal and bless the land.

This is not what we would normally call a vidui.

Some commentators attempt to explain this. Some say that indeed there is a “sin” in that were it not for the Golden Calf, tithes would not have to be given to the Kohanim and Levi’im but would have stayed in the house for the first born. Another possibility is the confession for delaying the giving of tithes until the last minute, which, while not a sin, represents a lack of enthusiasm and dedication to the mitzvah.

All well and good but not particularly satisfying to me.

But listen to this:

The Malbim comes and teaches an amazing thing. He writes, “When a person states an accounting (heshbon) of his deeds before God, whether it be in regard to his transgressing any of the mitzvot or in regard to his successful accomplishment of mitzvot, this statement is called ‘vidui’”. (Malbim on Deut. 26:13)

Consider the depth of this statement in the month of Elul. Beginning this Sunday morning and continuing every single morning (except for Shabbat) until Rosh Hashanah, and then every morning until Yom Kippur, we say the prayers of selihot and we offer the traditional vidui. And then on Yom Kippur we repeat both shorter and longer versions of vidui all through the day. These confessions focus only on what we did wrong. Long lists of sins we may or may not have actually committed. And of course, that is what we usually think is proper vidui.

But the Malbim made me think. If vidui is called for during all these days – and vidui can include a list of my mitzvah accomplishments – then why not say them as well? Even if a formal liturgical list of mitzvot accomplishments would not appear in the Selihot or the Mahzor, why are we not encouraged to write our own and add it to the vidui?

I can suggest an answer. Very often, it is our successful accomplishments that become the excuse for our failures. Something like, “Well, true, I didn’t do this particular mitzvah – but it’s ok because I did this and the other mitzvah. Our accomplishments allow us to discount our failures. They make it easy for us to rationalize them away.

Ok. That’s true. (It’s true for me, at least.) But, there is another way to look at it. Could we not think that articulating my achievements actually gives me both the courage and the perspective to be more honest about my failures? By proudly making God aware of what I did right, I can then admit what I did wrong without feeling like a failure. Moreover, the articulation of my successes may remind me that I really have the wherewithal to do teshuvah and fix my failures.

Indeed, in the vidui of tithes, the proud statement of success encourages the speaker to actually demand that God act favorably to him and the people. Perhaps a statement of our mitzvah successes coupled with our failures, give us a greater “right” to demand God’s forgiveness.

So I would make the following suggestion: Starting Sunday, (the beginning of selihot and vidui) begin writing a list of the mitzvot that you do. Make it as long as you honestly can. You don’t have to do it in one sitting. Keep the list open and add to it each day. On Yom Kippur, bring it with you to shul. Keep it in your mahzor. Take the extra time to say that vidui – the accomplishments – before you say the vidui of our failures. But only do it if you think that the vidui of your accomplishments will strengthen you to consider the vidui of your failures more seriously. As I mentioned before, it will backfire if you don’t.

It’s an idea that might just help.

May our entire AJR community be blessed with a year of health, strength and peace.
Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman is Director of Fieldwork and a lecturer in Professional Skills at AJR. He is also the rabbi emeritus of the Westchester Jewish Center.