Parashat Re'eh: The Real Wealth
The Torah in Parashat Re’eh presents the Misva of Ma’aser Sheni, which required farmers in Eretz Yisrael to bring one-tenth of their produce to Jerusalem and eat it there in the city. They also had the option of transferring the Kedusha of the Ma’aser Sheni onto money, and bringing the money to Jerusalem where they would use it to purchase food which they would then eat. The Torah says that the purpose of this Misva is "Lema’an Tilmad Le’yir’a Et Hashem Elokecha" – so that the people would learn Yir’at Shamayim, fear of Hashem.
How does this Misva engender Yir’at Shamayim? Why would someone achieve a keener spiritual awareness by eating a portion of his produce in Jerusalem?
The Sefer Ha’hinuch explains that this Misva brought one Yir’at Shamayim by compelling him to spend time in the holy city of Jerusalem. The person had to eat the entire tithe in Jerusalem, and thus had to spend several days, or perhaps a week or two, in the city. Jerusalem was the site of the Bet Ha’mikdash and of the Sanhedrin, which consisted of the nation’s seventy-one leading sages. When visiting Jerusalem, one had the opportunity to see the service in the Mikdash, to spend time with the Kohanim, and bask in the environment of Torah and Kedusha that permeated the city. This experience had an effect. A person would not leave Jerusalem without absorbing some of the holiness of the city, and this would lead him toward higher levels of Yir’at Shamayim.
This command of Ma’aser Sheni begins with the words, "Aser Te’aser." The Talmud, in a famous passage, notes the seemingly redundant expression and explains it to mean, "Aser Bishbil She’tit’asher" – "Give a tenth in order that you will be wealthy." This is generally understood as referring to the Misva of "Ma’aser Kesafim," donating one-tenth of one’s earnings to charity, in the merit of which one earns wealth. Indeed, I personally know several community members who became wealthy once they began making a point of donating one-tenth of their earnings to charity. But we can arrive at a much deeper meaning of the Gemara’s comment once we realize that this Pasuk is written in reference to Ma’aser Sheni. The Pasuk is saying that one should observe this Misva in order to acquire the real "wealth" – Yir’at Shamayim. This is the true fortune to which all of us should aspire – closeness with G-d, a keen awareness of His presence, and a desire to perform His will. We must observe the Misva of Ma’aser Sheni in order to achieve this inestimable treasure.
Although we cannot observe the actual Misva of Ma’aser Sheni nowadays, we can and must observe the general message conveyed by this Misva, by placing ourselves in an environment of Kedusha. The Misva of Ma’aser Sheni is predicated upon the basic premise that people are affected by their surroundings. We cannot delude ourselves into thinking that we can live in places without a strong Torah presence and somehow retain our connection to Torah. We are affected by our environment, and it is therefore imperative for ourselves and our children to live not in the place where we can earn the most money or enjoy the best luxuries, but in a place with a strong religious community and Torah foundation.
To its immense credit, our community has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to build a phenomenal religious infrastructure – synagogues, yeshivot, Mikvaot, adult education programs, and so on. Our parents and grandparents understood the necessity of a Torah atmosphere, that the "fortune" of Yir’at Shamayim is earned through the Misva of Ma’aser Sheni, by placing ourselves in an environment of holiness, and they worked tirelessly to create such an environment. It is crucial that we continue this legacy by continuing to avail ourselves of this infrastructure and continuing to maintain it. A person should never think that he can bring his family to some remote location and they will somehow manage to preserve their religious commitment. The "wealth" of Yir’at Shamayim requires an environment of Torah, as it is only in such an environment where we and our children can withstand the secular influences that abound and further develop our connection to Hashem and His Torah.