Why does this commandment make a repeat appearance?

Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Emor, Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23.

Emor contains almost 10 percent of the mitzvot in the Torah. The reading is divided into sections: procedures for the priests to remain ritually pure, an outline of the festival calendar, details about the bread and oil to be used on the altar, and commandments about a range of other matters.

In the middle is the command to leave the corners of our fields for the poor: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you will not wholly reap the corner of the field, and you will not gather the gleaning of your harvest; you will leave them for the poor, and for the stranger: I am Adonai your God” (Leviticus 23:22).

This verse is often cited as a proof text for the ethical basis of mitzvot relating to tzedakah (righteous giving) to the poor and to the stranger. Yet just last week, the same command appeared. We know that our tradition tells us that every word of Torah is valuable and has meaning, so why the repetition?

Bible commentator Nechama Leibowitz suggested that the harvest festivals, the calendar for which appear in this week’s reading, were times of great joy, during which it was easy to forget about those less fortunate than the successful farmer. She wrote that a good harvest could lead a farmer to believe that the bounty was a result of his own work, and not a blessing from God. The repetition therefore is a reminder that we must share God’s blessings with those less fortunate than ourselves.

Let me point out that in the phrase “your land” in this verse, “your” is in the plural form. Our text implies that ownership of the land is what we might call common land. Read in this way, the gleaners are not getting charity from the farmer. They are instead sharing what belongs to them, as a gift from God. To emphasize this point, our tradition states that even if the harvest is poor, the farmer still has the obligation to leave the corners for gleaners.

We live in economically uncertain and demanding times. Recent analysis shows that there is a growing gap between the wealthy and the poor. Few of us are farmers, yet those of us who are blessed with the means to do so must share with those less fortunate. Even those whose “harvest” has been modest have an obligation to help those further down the economic ladder.

What this says about the state of our current political debate on taxes and spending is important. It is incumbent upon all of us to find the ways and means to help the least well-off in our society. How we achieve that result is a matter of debate, but we should agree on the goal which our tradition sets forth with such emphasis this week.

For discussion:
How does your family perform the mitzvah of tzedakah?
How can we teach our children about the importance of righteous giving? n

Gary D. Simms is a faculty member of Shoresh Hebrew High School and is a former executive director of Reform, Orthodox and Conservative congregations in Greater Washington.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *