In the parsha of Ki Sovo, we read about the vidui maaser, the declaration that one had observed the halachic requirements of mitzvos connected with tithing one’s produce.
“I have removed all the consecrated food from the house, I have given to the Levi, the stranger, the orphan and the widow….I have not transgressed Your commandments nor forgotten to praise You….I have done all You commanded me.” The next pasuk continues with a request. “Look down from Your Holy abode and bless Your People Israel and the Land which You gave us as You swore to our Fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Devarim 26:13-15). Rashi comments on this last pasuk, “We have fulfilled our obligations, now You fulfill Your obligations as it says, “If you keep my statutes, I will provide rain in the right time.”
These pesukim and this Rashi are very difficult to understand. Who can stand before Hashem and declare “I have done all You commanded me?” And if this is not enough chutzpa, as Rashi said, we then come with demands on Hashem. “We’ve done our bit, now You do Yours.”
The Mesilas Yesharim in his chapter on humility, (Chapter 22), seems to warn us strongly against just such an attitude. No matter how much we achieve we should not forget that we have certainly not fulfilled all our obligations. Even what we have achieved has been only through the kindness of Hashem who gave us the means to do what have done. Pirkei Avos (2:8) says “If you have learnt much Torah, do not praise yourself for it because this is what you were created for.” There is never an excuse for arrogance. The Mesilas Yesharim brings the case of Nechemyiah ben Chachalya who was very successful in fighting intermarriage, Shabbos desecration and social injustice. Yet the Gemara Sanhedrin (93b) finds fault with Nechemyiah for the words which he said (Nechemyiah 5:19), “Remember in my favour, O my G-d, all that I have done for this People.”
We can perhaps lighten our question slightly with a comment by the late Rav Yosef Dunner zt”l the revered former Rav of the Addass Kehilla of London in his sefer Mikdash Levi. He points out that in the text of the Pasuk (26:14) “I have done what You commanded me” the wording is “osisi kechol asher tzivisani.” (not chol but kechol). Indeed, writes Rav Dunner, a person cannot say that he has done everything (chol) that he has been commanded but approximately everything (kechol). We are still astounded, however, by the brazenous and arrogance of making demands on Hashem based on our apparently faultless observance as brought in Rashi: “We have done what we are supposed to do, now You do what you are supposed to do.”A friend of mine from Ramat Beit Shemesh, Reb Yaakov Schoeman (n.y.) suggested the following possible answer.
There is a difference between the way we must look at ourselves and the way we should look at others. The Mesilas Yesharim is talking about the way we should look at ourselves, with humility. We should never think that our deeds are perfect. Surely we made mistakes, perhaps we could have done more. If we learnt Torah this is because Hashem has given us the possibility to do so in the form of our mental abilities, memory, a supportive enviroment etc. If we have given Tzedaka this is because Hashem gave us the means to do so and we have merely fulfilled our responsibilities. Good characteristics are probably inherited, we perform mitzvos because of the good education we received or good influences which we have been in proximity to, etc. We do not have to negate our achievements but we should put them in context.
However we should not look at other people’s achievements in this way. If they have learnt Torah we should try to be inspired by them, learn from their diligence. If they have good characteristics we should try to emulate them. Whatever others have achieved should be played up not down. Even if there are imperfections with others we should assume they are done by mistake. If we are not sure, we should give the benefit of the doubt, etc.
The Jew who asks Hashem for a blessing in the pasuk, is not talking about himself. Rashi uses the words “We have done what we should have done” Concerning himself he would have spoken with more humility. But he is looking at the achievements of the People as a whole. Concerning others, he sees only perfection. He sees Jews faithfully tithing their produce and bringing the first fruits to Yerusholayim. He sees Jews making sure that orphans and widows are looked after. He sees Jews rising early go to a shiur and learning again in the evening after a hard day’s work. He sees acts of kindness, bikur cholim, hatzala, chaveirim, misaskim. He sees Jews in the midst of serious challenges living with emuna and bitachon. He sees a Jewish People loyally keeping details of halacha despite a galus of two thousand years. He sees holiness. And that is enough reason to beseech Hashem, “We have done so much, we have continued to believe in You and to keep Your mitzvos despite persecutions, pogroms and a Holocaust. Now, please, keep the promises You wrote in the Torah and in the Prophets and bless the Land You gave us that it should flow with milk and honey. May all the wickedness disappear like smoke, may the Tzadikim see and rejoice, may You give honour to Your People
and may the time finally come to witness utzemichas keren l’Dovid Avdecho, bimhairo beyomeinu, omein.
Taken from Rabbi Fletcher’s sefer From Strength to Strength.