Twice every seven years, the Torah enjoins us to declare that we have properly tithed our produce:
“When you finish taking all the tithes for your produce ... you should declare before the Lord your God: I have removed all the sacred portions from the house. I have given to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan and the widow, according to all the instructions that You commanded me.” (Deut. 26:12-13)
What are these tithing instructions that God prescribed?
The Mishnah in Ma’aser Sheini (7:11) explains that this refers to tithing in the proper order. The first tenth, ma’aser rishon, is distributed to the Levites. Only afterwards should the second tithe, ma’aser sheini, be set aside to be consumed by the owner in Jerusalem.
Why is the order so important? What does it matter which ma’aser is apportioned first?
The Mishnah teaches us an important lesson in how we should fulfill our moral obligations. The Torah wants to impress upon us the importance of executing our duties in the correct order and appropriate time. If the hour is right, our efforts will bring about consummate good in the world. However, when irresponsible and rash individuals attempt to address problems before their time, their actions often turn out detrimental, and prevent much good.
For example, our primary responsibility is for the welfare of our family. Only afterwards come the moral obligations to the nation. Next comes our concern for all human beings, and lastly, for all creatures.
Only after taking care of our family should we turn towards the needs of our nation. Fortunate is the individual whose obligations towards his people are such that he has the opportunity to also work for the good of all humanity.
The prophets spoke of a future era when humanity will no longer need to help one another. Spiritually, there will be no need to teach others, “For all will know Me, both small and large” (Jeremiah 31:34). None will require physical assistance, since “The lame will leap like deer and the tongue of the mute will sing” (Isaiah 35:6) and “He will swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25:8). Nor will economic support be required, as “There shall be no needy among you” (Deut. 15:4). At such a time, what will we do with our natural inclination to help others? Who will require our aid?
At that time, we will turn to the creatures beneath us, to care for them and enlighten them, until “the cow and the bear will graze together” (Isaiah 11:7). Mankind will then be revealed as a benevolent king watching over all creatures.
Sadly, there are those so troubled by the woes of the world — war, ignorance, oppression — that in their haste to rectify the world’s problems, they ignore the needs of their own families and nations. They only bring about greater sorrow, and have neglected those closer to themselves. Likewise, some hasten to help the animals, disregarding the distress of people in front of their eyes. These rash individuals cause great evil in their attempts to alleviate problems before their time.
For this reason, the Torah instructs us to declare that we have properly fulfilled our moral obligations — tithing our produce — in the correct order and in the appropriate time.
(Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 336-338. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, p. 406)