Whenever we think of the concept of “Viduy” our natural reaction is to think of the extended confession that we recite ten times over the course of Yom Kippur. In this week’s Parsha, one which we always read in the run up to the Yamim Noraim, also features a viduy, Viduy Maaserot. (It is interesting to note that with the exception of those years where Rosh HaShana or Tzom Gedalia fall on Shabbat, the first night that Ashkenazim recite selichot always falls on Motzaei Shabbat Parshat Ki Tavo. The custom of Edot Mizrach is of course to begin reciting selichot on the second day of Rosh Chodesh Ellul.)
Viduy Maaserot, found in Perek 26: 12-16, is not referred to by this name in the Parsha itself. Instead, we find this appellation used in the Mishna in Maaser Sheni (5:10) to describe the declaration made in the Beit Hamikdash on the Pesach following the three year Maaser cycle, when the homeowner declares that all his tithes have been properly distributed and were not misused. (Whether the declaration must be made in the Beit HaMikdash or not is in fact a subject of disagreement amongst the Rishonim, which is not the subject of our discussion. We have stated the Halacha according to the Sefer HaChinuch Mitzva 607.) The declaration is made in conjunction with Biyur Maaserot, the removal of all tithes from our possession.
Why did Chazal choose to label this declaration “Viduy”? Is the translation “confession” that we gave in the first sentence of our study (and which I am sure passed unremarked by every reader) in fact accurate? If it is, what possible connection can it have with Biyur Maaserot? And finally what is the purpose of this declaration?
The classical commentaries on the Chumash and the Mishna are mostly silent regarding these questions. Rashbam explains the reason for the declaration without relating to the question of why the Mishna refers to the declaration by the name Viduy. Rashbam suggests an individual says the Viduy in order to ensure that he in fact will give his Maaserot. Only a truly evil person would dare make a public statement to Hashem testifying to the fact that he has distributed all his tithes if he has in fact not done so. As a result, by requiring this declaration the Torah creates an incentive for the farmer to in fact fully distribute his tithes.
Given the nature of Maaser Sheni and Maaser Ani we can understand why the Torah might view a bit of extra motivation as being helpful. After all, Maaser Sheni needs to be brought to Yerushalayim and be eaten there and Maaser Ani is just being given away. Even once separated, there is no major incentive to make sure it is distributed. So a bit of extra incentive to complete might be in order to ensure that the Mitzvot of giving Maaser are properly fulfilled.
Tosefot Yom Tov (Rav Yom Tov Lipman Heller who lived in the 16th and 17th century) is the first commentary on the Mishna to deal with the question, and he simply quotes Seforno (26:13), who is one of the few commentaries on Chumash to deal with the question of why the declaration is called Viduy. Seforno suggests a radical idea which fully explains why Chazal chose to call the declaration of Biyur Maaserot Viduy. Seforno reminds us that the service in the Beit HaMikdash was originally the purview of the Bechorim, the First Borns. They were stripped of this prerogative when they joined in the worship of the Egel Hazahav while Shevet Levi, who remained loyal to Hashem and Moshe, were chosen to replace them. Presumably, had the Bechorim continued to be the ones who were responsible for the Avoda then they would have received the various Matanot, including the tithes, that Am Yisrael is instructed to give to the Cohanim and Leviim.
This, says Seforno, is the Viduy Maaserot! Each time we give the tithes and announce that we have fulfilled our obligations we are in fact confessing to the sins of our forefathers. The tithes should have stayed in our own homes, to be given to the First Born of every family. Instead, because of our sins, they are being removed from our homes and being given to the members of Shevet Levi. So from the perspective of Seforno this declaration in fact becomes a classic Viduy.
As we mentioned, Seforno is truly radical. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of his approach is that what seems, at least from a simple reading of the passukim, to be a joyous declaration is turned into a grim and guilt laden obligation.
At least one commentary on the Mishna, Tosefot Anshei Shem (an unattributed commentary, apparently from the 18th century) suggests a much simpler explanation, namely that our translation of Viduy is imperfect. Viduy is simply any acknowledgement of our actions, be they good or bad. Thus, while Viduy certainly includes a confession of misdeeds, it also can be used as a description for any declaration.
Rav Elchanan Samet (Iyunim B’Parshat HaShavua Third Series pp. 490-494) devotes the final section of his study of our Parsha to the question of why the declaration was called Viduy. Rav Samet struggles to answer the question. In order to do so he quotes a fascinating piece from Rav Kook (Ein Aya on the Mishna in Maaser Sheni). Rav Kook suggests that the twin aspects of viduy as an acknowledgement of all our actions, good and bad, serve a critical need. All too often we are focused on our sins and the need to repent and atone for them. This can be very draining psychologically. In order to achieve an appropriate balance, it is also necessary to recognize when “we get it right”. We need to realize that our relationship with Hashem is based not only on atoning for what we have wrongfully done but also through the positive actions which define our lives. Nonetheless, this positive reinforcement needs to be kept in perspective, lest we become complacent. This explains why we say Viduy Maaserot less often than confession for our sins and we actually hold off on saying it until the last possible moment, the afternoon of the last day of Pesach.
Rav Kook’s explanation provides a perfect counterweight to the position of Rashbam which we quoted at the beginning of our analysis, and certainly to the grim view of Seforno. Our service to Hashem needs to be balanced between a keen consciousness of our faults and a healthy awareness of our strengths. It is with this balance that we move forward, apprehensively but also joyfully, into the upcoming Yamim Noraim.