“And you should say before Hashem your G-d, I have removed the sacred from the house. And also I have given from it to the Layve and the convert, to the orphan and to the widow, as required by your commandments that you have commanded me. I have not violated your commandments and I have not forgotten.” (Devarim 26:13)
At the end of a three-year cycle, a declaration is required regarding the giving of tithes. In this declaration, the person confirms that the sacred portion of the crops have been removed from the home and properly distributed. The tithe due to the Leyve has been given to him. The tithe required for the support of the poor has been distributed.
This declaration is referred to as Veydoi Maasrot. This can be translated as “confession over the tithes.” The commentaries ask an obvious question. Why is this declaration described as a confession? A confession, in halacha, is made in order to repent from a sin. This person is declaring that the laws have been properly performed. There would seem to be no need for a confession.
There are a number of answers offered to this question. Many involve providing an alternative translation for Veydoi Maasrot that does not include the element of confession. Sforno, however, offers a very simple explanation that preserves the straightforward translation.
Originally, the institution of the priesthood was awarded to the firstborn. Every tribe was to be represented in this honored group. At Sinai, the nation sinned through association with the Egel HaZahav – the Golden Calf. The only group that opposed involvement with this idol was the tribe of Leyve. As a result, the Almighty removed the priesthood from the nation’s firstborn and awarded it to Shevet Leyve – the tribe of Leyve. This meant that the other tribes would not be represented within the priesthood by their firstborn.
Sforno explains that we are required to acknowledge our involvement in the sin of the Egel. This is done through the tithes. Through these tithes we support Shevet Leyve that was chosen for the priesthood. This indicates that we accept our responsibility for the sin of the Egel and the consequences. Veydoi Maasrot is an affirmation of fulfilling our obligations of tithing. This, therefore, has an element of confession. We are confessing the sin of the Egel.
“Do not deviate from the things that I have commanded you today to the right or left – in order to follow other gods.” (Devarim 28:14)
Moshe admonishes Bnai Yisrael to be faithful to the Torah. The people should not deviate from the commandments of the Almighty. They should not worship other gods.
This pasuk contains a subtle difficulty. Moshe begins by warning Bnai Yisrael against deviating from the commandments. He tells the people they should not stray from the path of the Torah to the right or left. This expression seems to refer to even minor deviations. The Torah is represented as a straight path. Even a slight divergence from this path – to the right or left – is to be avoided.
Moshe then admonishes the nation against worshiping other gods. In the context of the passage, this admonishment seems to be an example of the deviation Moshe had just described. This worship represents straying from the path of the Torah. However, this is not a valid example! Moshe began by stating that the people must guard themselves against minor deviations. He then provides an example of such a deviation. But the example is not a minor divergence from the path of Torah. Idolatry represents a complete rejection of the fundamentals of the Torah! Why does Moshe cite idolatry as an example of a sight deviation?
Sforno offers an amazing interpretation of our passage that resolves our question. He begins by interpreting the opening statement in the pasuk. In order to understand his interpretation a brief introduction is required. The Torah is a law revealed by the Almighty. It is not a set of traditions. We do not observe the Torah because it was our ancestors’ way of life. We are not faithful to the Torah because it is our cultural identity. We must observe the Torah because it is Hashem’s revealed truth. This distinction has practical implications. We sometimes find that tradition is not completely consistent with the law. With the passage of time, inaccuracies or errors can creep into a community’s pattern of observance. These inaccuracies become established as traditions, within the community. In such instances a clear divergence develops between conventional practice and the actual requirements of halacha.
According to Sforno, the opening portion of the passage refers to these divergences from the path of the Torah. Tradition must be consistent with the law. A tradition that in inconsistent with halacha is a divergence from the path of the Torah. Moshe refers to erroneous traditions as deviations to the right or left.
Sforno now reconciles the closing portion of the passage with the opening portion. Moshe admonishes the people not to follow other gods. These “other gods” are not idols or heathen deities. These “other gods” are ancestors or respected leaders who inadvertently established erroneous customs or traditions. We do not follow these traditions out of respect to these leaders. Instead, we must remain faithful to the Torah. We are not loyal to our ancestors. We are true to the Torah.
This explanation resolves the difficulty in the pasuk. The entire passage deals with minor deviations from the path of halacha. Moshe begins by admonishing the people against these divergences. He then explains that these deviations can be caused by an irresponsible attitude toward traditional observances or conventions. This attitude is motivated by an inappropriately, uncritical relationship towards our ancestors. We must guard ourselves against this attitude and concentrate on fulfilling the will of the Almighty.
“And foreigners will build your walls, and their kings will minister to you. For although in My anger I struck you, in My favor I have had mercy upon you.” (Yishayahu 60:10, Haftorah for Parshat Ki Tavo)
In the haftorah for our parasha, the Navi discusses the redemption of Bnai Yisrael. He reveals that nations that may have previously persecuted Bnai Yisrael will acknowledge this redemption. The walls of Yerushalayim will be rebuilt. These nations will participate in this project.
This pasuk seems inconsistent with Torah law. Maimonides explains that it is prohibited to accept donations from non-Jews for the building of Yerushalayim’s walls. Yerushalayim must be completely identified with Bnai Yisrael. Accepting contributions from other nations for the building and maintenance of the city’s walls compromises this identity. If these contributions are not accepted, it follows that direct participation is also prohibited. Yet, our passage states that foreign nations will directly participate in the rebuilding of Yerushalayim’s walls! How can we reconcile this passage with the halacha?
It is notable that Maimonides seems to contradict himself on the issue of non-Jewish participation in the building of Yerushalayim. As we have shown above, Maimonides maintains that non-Jewish participation is prohibited. However, in another instance, Maimonides takes the opposite position.
Maimonides, explains that every war must be preceded by an offer of peace. This even applies to the war waged to conquer the land of Israel. Prior to waging war with the nations that occupied the land of Israel, we were required to offer a peaceful settlement. The Torah specifies some of the elements of this settlement. One of the elements is that the nations must accept political suzerainty of Bnai Yisrael. The nation must pay tribute. This tribute includes monetary payment and providing labor for national projects. Maimonides explains that among these projects is maintenance of the walls. He is apparently referring to the walls of Yerushalayim! How can we reconcile this law with the prohibitions against non-Jewish participation in the building of Yerushalayim’s walls?
Rav Meshulam David Soloveitchik offers an excellent solution to our problem. He observes that the prohibition against non-Jewish participation in the building of the walls of Yerushalayim has a purpose. The city must be completely identified with Bnai Yisrael. Non-Jewish participation compromises this identity. Through participating in the building of the walls other nations would become participants in the city’s building or maintenance. Their identity would become related to the city.
Rav Soloveitchik explains that this consideration does not restrict every form of non-Jewish participation in the city’s building and maintenance. Specifically, it allows for participation rendered as tribute to Bnai Yisrael. In such a circumstance, the nation does not contribute as an independent nation. The nation participates as a act of recognition of Bnai Yisrael’s suzerainty. No foreign identity becomes attached to the city. The city retains its exclusive association with Bnai Yisrael.
Based upon this distinction, our problem is solved. Maimonides does not contradict himself. He explains that as a general rule foreign participation in the building and maintenance of Yerushalayim’s walls is prohibited. However, he explains that participation offered as tribute does not violate this prohibition. This is because participation is only prohibited when it compromises the city’s identity. Participation provided as tribute does compromise this identity. The Navi’s prophecy is also consistent with the law. Apparently, the Navi is prophesizing that former enemies will be vanquished. As vanquished nations, these foreign peoples will offer tribute to Bnai Yisrael. Part of this tribute will be their participation in the rebuilding of the city they had destroyed. This tribute does not compromise the identity of the city. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 26:13.  Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 28:14.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Matanot Aniyin 8:8.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 6:31.  Rav Shimon Yosef Miller, Shai LaTorah (Jerusalem 5755), volume 3, pp. 318 – 319.