The Weekly Commentary of JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning
May 8, 2004 17 Iyyar 5764
This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matt Berkowitz, JTS Rabbinic Fellow
Traditional rabbinic thought argues that words of Torah are never superfluous. There is a distinct economy in the way that words are employed. And so, when we encounter repetition, Torah is coming to teach us something unique. The challenge for us, as readers, is to understand the import of repetition. Parashat Emor offers us one such opportunity. Although the law of pe'ah, leaving one corner of the field to the poor, is legislated a few chapters earlier in Parashat K'doshim (Leviticus 19:9), it is placed this week in a list of festivals. What is the significance of restating such law in the midst of our parashah?
Immediately after the Torah's description of Passover, the Counting of the Omer and Shavuot, we arrive at Leviticus 23:22, "and when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God." At the core of the mitzvah of pe'ah is the keen awareness of blessing and plenty. When one is in the midst of an abundant harvest, one must practice self-restraint. While the typical human inclination is to harvest all of one's fruits or vegetables, the Torah places limits on our desire for agricultural riches. Abundance without limits is unbounded selfishness; recognizing limits reinforces the fragility of blessing and the need to take care of those less fortunate in the community.
Accordingly, the connection between this mitzvah and our festivals becomes clear. Festivals are a time in which we gather together with family and friends celebrating community and abundance. A full table represents plenty - just as the harvest of the biblical farmer. Maimonides teaches in his Mishneh Torah (Festivals 6:18), "when an individual eats and drinks at a festive meal, he is obliged to give food to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow . . . but if one locks the door of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his wife and children and does not give food and drink to needy people, this is not a mitzvah celebration but rather, a celebration of the stomach . . . and this kind of celebration is reprehensible." Similarly, Rashi, in the words of the Sifre, praises one who engages in the mitzvah of pe'ah. When one tends to the needs of the poor, it is as if one is engaging in the rebuilding of the Temple - that is to say, it is as if one is building a dwelling place for God.
With Shavuot just around the corner, may we take the teachings of our parashah, Maimonides, and Rashi to heart. Pe'ah is not some abstract, antiquated, irrelevant mitzvah to our lives as modern Jews. For it is a mitzvah that, at its very core, teaches us to share blessing. Only then, can we move a step closer toward repairing a broken world.
With Wishes for a Good Week and Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Matt Berkowitz