By Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz
There is a Hasidic story about a king who became angry and banished his son, the prince. After five years, the king regretted his actions and sent a messenger to return his son to the palace.
“But I do not want him to be angry at me when he returns,” the king instructed his emissary. “Offer him a present, anything he wants up to half my kingdom.”
The messenger searched high and low and until he finally found the prince in a far corner of the kingdom. He was living on the streets, dressed in rags, hungry and shivering from the cold. The messenger explained his mission to the prince and asked him what gift he would want before returning to the palace.
“If it’s not too much trouble, I would like…” The prince hesitated. “I would like a fresh roll with butter.”
Every three years (on the fourth and seventh years of the tithing cycle), the tithe is accompanied by a verbal confession called vidui maaser (Deuteronomy 26:12-15, The Israel Bible, p. 501-502), stating that all the tithes have been taken to properly. After the confession, the Jew declares, “Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Yisrael (Israel) and the soil You have given us, a land flowing with milk and honey, as You swore to our fathers.”
Imagine the situation. The person has brought his tithes to the Holy Temple and is standing before God. And he asks for…a glass of milk. And maybe a little honey.
Shouldn’t the person be screaming out for redemption? For world peace? For an end to suffering?
No, he wants milk. And honey.
In the moments that we are closest to God, how can we ask Him for material success, a request that seems trivial and petty?
Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam (1905-1994, Romania), known as the Klausenberger Rebbe, addresses this question in his book, Shefa Chaim (the bounty of life). He notes that the declaration accompanying the tithe addresses God as “looking down from Your Holy abode.” The people recognize that God exists in a His lofty heights, infinitely distant from the petty and mundane needs of Man. Yet what is petty to God is vital for man. And God, Himself, promises to bless the nation with these material comforts, as reflected in the words at the end of the verse: “as You swore to our fathers.”
These comforts are necessary so that they can enjoy peace of mind and serenity in order to be able to devote themselves to God. The declaration of the tithe requests that God bridge the huge gap between heaven and earth and fulfill all the requests of man, great or small, so that they can serve Him properly.
As the Rabbi notes, if the requests for material needs are unmet a person may be unable to serve God appropriately. Hunger can make it impossible to pray. Discomfort can be a distraction from performing God’s will. In fact, these material needs are required for continued survival.
In these respects, material needs become spiritual needs. This is, in essence, bridging the gap between heaven and earth.
Angels have no physical needs and therefore do not make requests for material sustenance. Even without sustenance, angels serve God. But God himself created Man with needs in order for us to turn to Him. We ask God to come down from heaven where there is no hunger and no want, and to join us in our struggle to exist in the material world so that we can serve Him the way He wants to be served.
While it might at first seem inappropriate and petty to appeal to God for material success and comfort, in truth, it was God himself who promised that He would provide us with material success and comfort. And because God created us in a way that would force us to turn to Him for success in these areas, it is therefore appropriate and proper to petition Him for these things.
We can learn from here that what seems petty and trivial to one might be absolutely necessary and vital to another. Just as we request that God look down from His lofty abode and grant us what seems insignificant from His perspective, we must do our best to help everyone fill their needs, even if they seem to us to be childish and inconsequential.