One of the key aspects of our being created in the Divine image is the gift of speech. As the world was created with ten Divine utterances (Avot 5:1), our tzelem elokim, divine image, allows us to create, or G-d forbid, destroy, many little “human” worlds through our speech. Yet strangely—perhaps brilliantly is a more apt description—there is very little a Jew must actually say.
Mitzvoth, the core of Judaism, focus on actions. They are rooted in a system of core beliefs, though there is often debate as to exactly what these may be. Very few mitzvoth, on a Biblical level at least, require the spoken word; it is much preferred that we listen rather than speak. And listening, in Jewish law, is considered a form of speaking (Sukkah 38b)—only one person needs to recite the Kiddush, and all others fulfill their obligation by listening.
The mitzvoth involving speech tend to be those dealing with communal issues—i.e., the priestly blessing, the king’s reading of the Torah every seven years, or various court procedures. Even the most prominent mitzvah requiring speech, that of prayer, is meant to be recited silently and originally did not even have a fixed text. Kriat shma, the acceptance of the yoke of heaven—another one of the mitzvoth requiring speech—may also, according to some Talmudic authorities, be said silently (Brachot 15a).
Yet, in Parshat Ki-Tavo, the opening two mitzvoth require a speech; or more precisely, a declaration. Interestingly, both relate to the farmer in the land of Israel. The farmer living in Israel had to formally and publicly express his gratitude for G-d’s blessing and for the sacred land the produce of which he enjoys, giving his “first fruits”, bikkurim, to the priest. Immediately thereafter, the Torah tells us that this same farmer must make a declaration that he has tithed his food properly and shared it with the “Levite, the stranger, the orphan, the widow” (Devarim 26:13).
It was the sin of the meraglim, who spoke negatively about the land that so affected Jewish history. The Torah, in its brilliant wisdom, requires the farmer to state and state again what a blessing it is to live in the land of Israel. The only other individual Biblical mitzvah requiring speech is birchat hamazon which, despite being applicable wherever we eat, is also connected to the land of Israel—having as its source, “and you shall eat and be satisfied, and thank the Lord your G-d for the good land that He has given you” (Devarim 8:10).
After asserting that indeed, he has followed all the laws relating to tithing, the farmer asks G-d to “look down, hashkifa, from Your holy habitation in heaven and bless Your people Israel, and the land that You have given us” (Devarim 26:15). The Jerusalem Talmud notes that, with this one exception, the word hashkafa connotes a “cursed” event. Rashi quotes this Talmudic passage the first time the Torah uses the word; “And the men [the ‘angels’ who came to visit Abraham] rose up from the place, vayashkeefu, and looked towards Sedom” (Breisheet 18:16).
Sedom was (in)famous for their total lack of compassion towards “the stranger, the orphan, and the widow”, setting the standard for xenophobia that all too many have emulated. To avoid the same fate of those of Sedom, we must ensure that—unlike the situation in their town—the disadvantaged are part and parcel of our community. Every time the farmer harvested his crops, he was reminded of this. Whereas the goal of the Sedomites was to use their fertile territory for economic wealth, the goal of the farmer in Israel is to use his economic wealth in the service of others, thereby serving G-d.
Ultimately, the things we speak about are those things that we consider most important. There is apparently very little that is more important than helping those in Israel who are in need.