Whose Barley is it?

This week’s parsha describes a ritual performed in the Bais Hamikdash-Holy Temple in conjunction with an agricultural event. The Omer, named after a measure of barley taken from the year’s first crop, must be offered in the Temple on the second day of Passover. Only after that ritual is performed may everyone else partake of the new crops.

The Torah introduces this commandment with the following words:

“When you come to the Land which I am giving you, and you reap its harvest, you should bring an Omer measure from the first of your reaping to the priest.”

The first part of the verse refers to the harvest as the land’s harvest. It is not called “yours.” Yet, the end of the verse states that the harvest is “from the first of your reaping.” Initially it is the land’s reaping and later it becomes yourreaping. Why the change?

One answer (based on the work Ateres Tzvi) is that until one brings the Omer offering it cannot be said that it is your reaping; it is not really yours even if it was grown on land you inherited or purchased. Only after you offer an Omer from the first crop of barley to G‑d can it be said that it is your reaping and your barley.

You Can Only Keep What You Give Away!

The paradoxical lesson here is that you only own that which you give away.

There is a well-known story of a great Sage who was a close confidant of one of the sultans in the Middle Ages. His enemies’ plots against him always failed because he enjoyed the sultan’s trust and admiration. His detectors would not give up, though. Finally they approached the sultan and told him that the rabbi was hiding some of his income to avoid taxes. When the sultan approached the Sage and asked him the total value of his fortune, the number he gave was considerably less than what the records showed he actually possessed. The sultan, in anger, had him thrown into prison for misrepresenting his financial information.

The sultan could not comprehend why the rabbi, a man of great integrity, would misrepresent his wealth.  He visited the rabbi in prison to ask him about this. The rabbi’s response was: “I told you how much I gave to charity because that is the one thing that I truly possess and no one could take it away from me. As you may see, the rest of my fortune has been taken away from me and I no longer in possess it. But, the tzedakah that I gave is mine forever!”

The story echoes a statement in the Talmud (Bava Basra 11a) by the righteous King Munbaz (at the end of the Second Temple era).  His critics accused him of squandering his treasures and those of his ancestors. One of his retorts was:

“My fathers hoarded for others, but I have hoarded for myself, as it is stated, ‘and for you it will be charity.’”

The simple understanding of Munbaz’ words was that by giving tzedakah he was generating reward for himself in the next world. However, that would have been redundant because Munbaz had already stated earlier that his tzedakah was generating reward for the next world. A deeper understanding of his response then is that tzedakah actually renders that money your own possession in the here and now.

These stories convey a profound message:  that which you give away is truly your possession. Everything else is ephemeral and can be here one day and gone the next.

Moreover, according to the teachings of Chassidus, when we have a relationship with something transient it is not considered to be ours even when we possess it. Nothing is real that does not endure and therefore our possessions are only ours to the extent that we give them away.

The Limits

This does not mean to suggest that we ought to give away all or even most of our earnings to tzedakah. According to Jewish law, we are obligated to donate no less than ten percent of our net income to tzedakah. Preferably, the Talmud rules, we ought to give 20 percent. Obviously, in emergency situations it is important to be flexible—e.g. when a starving man asks for food but we have already met our quota of 20 percent…

In addition, the Alter Rebbe in his classic work, the Tanya, allows for giving more than 20 percent if it is for the sake of cleansing our soul. The rationale for this “leniency” is that it is no different from spending more than 20 percent on our medical expenses if so needed. Spiritual health, the Alter Rebbe argues, is no less important than physical health. We may therefore pay as much as required for our own spiritual rehabilitation. There is, however, no instance in which we are encouraged to give everything away.

It Can be All Yours

Chassidic thought takes the above principle one step further. Thus far we have concluded that our true possessions are only the ones we used for the sake of a Mitzvah, particularly, the mitzvah of tzedakah. All our other possessions—the majority—are not truly ours in the full sense of the word. However, Chassidic teaching adds a new dimension. When we give material wealth for tzedakah, we truly possess the 10 to 20 percent or whatever amount we choose to contribute. But the effect goes well beyond that.   The percentage of our income that we donate elevates the rest of our income so all that we own is considered to be on a higher spiritual plane. It is as if we actually gave all of it to tzedakah, and hence, it may be said, all of our income is ours.

In the words of the Tanya (Chapter 34):

“… And even though he distributes no more than a fifth part, this fifth carries the other four parts with it up to G‑d, to provide a dwelling for Him, blessed be He, as is known from the rabbinic statement, that the commandment of charity is equal to all sacrifices. And through the sacrifices all living creatures were elevated unto G‑d through the offering of one animal, all plants through that of one tenth of a measure of fine flour mixed with oil, and so on.”

A Fifth for Pharaoh

The above is alluded to in the Biblical story of Joseph, the viceroy of Egypt, who tells the Egyptian people in the time of famine:

“When the harvest is gathered you must give one fifth to Pharaoh, and the remaining four parts will be yours.”

The mystical tradition interprets this verse metaphorically.  The four parts that are ours refers to the four conventional realms of spiritual existence, known as the “Four Worlds.” Each world generates a limited measure of G‑dly light, attenuated to allow us to experience it. The fifth level represents G‑d’s transcendent being and is represented, ironically, by Pharaoh, a word derived from a root meaning of revealed or exposed. Whereas each of the Four Worlds experiences a concealed measure of Divine light, on the fifth level there is no filter to dilute G‑d’s Essence.

Thus the foregoing verse states: When you give a fifth to G‑d (“Pharaoh”) and thereby transcend your own self-interest, then all four other conventional dimensions of life are yours.  Each of the conventional aspects of our lives are affected and are “given to us.”

Three Lessons

If we delve even more deeply into the above, three messages emerge:

First, by virtue of our generosity in giving our share, G‑d promises us that we will receive the other four parts too. Indeed, tzedakah is the one Mitzvah, the Torah tells us, that we may perform for ulterior motives. The more we give the more we get!

Second, when we give our share, we elevate and endow the rest of our possessions with a G‑dly transcendent character; it is as if we gave all of our possessions to Him. Our entire lives are transformed.

Third, if the only true possessions are those that we give away to others, then it follows that when we give our fair share to tzedakah, we get to own all of our possessions. Everything we possess is endowed with true and enduring status.

Sowing for the Future

The Alter Rebbe, in his classic work, Torah Or, informs us that in the present era of exile we can only perform about one fifth of the 248 positive commandments. We will have to wait for the Messianic Age and the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdash to be able to fulfill the other four fifths.

If we may apply the foregoing discussion of the effects of one fifth on the other four fifths in our possession we may draw an interesting conclusion:

The Mitzvah of tzedakah is referred to as sowing, as it is stated (Hoshea 10:12) “Sow for yourselves for tzedakah, reap according to the kindness.” When we perform the Mitzvos we can do now, particularly, the Mitzvah of tzedakah, we generate the other four fifths of Mitzvos with all of their attendant benefits in the Messianic Age.  The Mitzvah of Tzedakah is the catalyst that will lead us to the time when we will be able to do the other four fifths of the commandments as well. 

Everything happens by Divine Providence. Recently, it has become popular for philanthropists to encourage giving through matching grants. For example, in one scenario philanthropists will multiply by four or five times the amount each contributor gives. As a result, each person feels that he or she has given so much more than they could ordinarily afford.

The same is true for every Mitzvah we do in the last remaining moments of exile. Each Mitzvah brings us closer to the coming of Moshiach and the ultimate Redemption. As such, each Mitzvah contains the effects of five!