Chapter twenty three of Leviticus is one of several texts in the Torah that describes the various holidays. Each time the Torah lists all of the holidays, there are slight variations, including how exactly they are observed, the names that are used, their symbolic meaning, and so on. As we might expect from the Book of Leviticus, the emphasis here is on agriculture, and the proper offerings that must be brought to the Priests to be offered as sacrifices.
It starts with Shabbat, then continues with Passover, the counting of the Omer, Shavuot (although it is not given a name), Rosh Hashanah (again without being named), then Yom Kippur, Succot, and finally Shemini Atzeret.
The descriptions here discuss the various sacrifices that must be offered, as well as some of the rituals that individuals must observe – practices like not performing any labor, taking the Four Species on Succot, eating unleavened bread on Passover, and so on.
But there is one verse appearing precisely in the middle of this detailed calendar of holidays that does not seem to fit. In the 44-verse chapter that lists all of the holidays, it is verse 22. It comes between the descriptions of Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah.
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 the stranger: I the Lord am your God. (Leviticus 23:22)
There are a few problems raised by this verse’s appearance here.
First of all, what does it have to do with the holidays?
Second, we already heard this commandment last week. Just four chapters previously, in Parashat Kedoshim, we read the exact same mitzvah – word for word. The Torah is repeating itself, as if we have already forgotten. For a book that does not like to waste ink with superfluous and repetative details, this seems strange.
The commentators pick up on these questions, and offer some answers. Ibn Ezra, the twelfth century Spanish Rabbi, points out that it appears precisely in the context of the holiday of Shavuot. As an agricultural holiday, Shavuot marks the beginning of the barley harvest. Barley is the first of the major cereal grains to ripen. Wheat comes later on during the summer. As we are getting excited to start bringing in the grain, the Torah repeats its instruction to leave the corners of the fields unharvested for the poor and the strangers in our communities.
Ramban and Rashbam offer a different explanation. They say that it has to do with the description of the Omer a few verses earlier. The Torah describes what is going to happen when the Israelites enter the Promised Land. They are going to plant their crops and reap the harvest. Before they can consume any of that crop themselves, they have to bring the first sheaf, the omer, to the Priest. He will then wave it around as an elevation offering before God. This is going to take place, at the earliest, on the second day of Passover. None of the new crop may be consumed until this omer waving presentation has taken place.
This is where Ramban and Rashbam’s explanation comes in. The Torah is warning us that the mitzvah of gathering the first of the crop as a presentation to God does not override the requirement to leave the corners of the field untrimmed for the poor and the strangers.
Put another way, the ritual obligation does not take precedence over the moral obligation.
There are several important lessons here.
First, that we cannot own the land outright. Ultimately, the earth and everything in it belongs to God. We are given permission to use and enjoy it, but not without certain qualifications. L’ovdah u-l’shomrah, “to work it and to protect it,” God instructs the first human in the Garden of Eden.
Here, in the context of describing sacred time, we are told that we must both acknowledge God as the Creator of the earth and the One who makes it possible for us to cause it to produce food, and to provide for those who are less fortunate. Only then may we enjoy it ourselves. To consume the grain before both these steps have been taken is tantamount to theft.
The second lesson is that our dedication to religious ritual does not obviate our obligation to other human beings who need us. This is the message of Prophets like Isaiah. Don’t think that God wants your sacrifices while you let the weakest among you starve, he reiterates over and over again.
For us to do our part as Jews in our covenantal relationship with God means both that we acknowledge God’s Presence in our lives through ritual, and that we affirm God’s presence in other human beings through serving them.
In an agricultural society, the requirement to leave the corners of the fields untrimmed was public. Everybody could see that a farmer had done his duty. Not just the hungry who relied on it, but also fellow farmers and members of the community. If someone shirked his or her responsibilities, everyone would know it.
Today, we are so far removed from from the most vulnerable members of society. We can pretend that human suffering does not exist without suffering any consequences.
But suffering certainly exists among us.
Homelessness in our community is a human tragedy in our backyard. Santa Clara County has the fifth-largest unsheltered population in the country with the highest percentage of homeless veterans anywhere. More than 7,500 people are homeless on any given night, with almost three quarters of that number unsheltered.
The numbers have ballooned in recent years, due by a significant degree to the high cost of housing in the Bay Area. The reasons for homelessness are complicated, and solutions are elusive.
But if our tradition teaches us anything, it is that we have an obligation to care for the strangers who live among us because of our experience as strangers in the land of Egypt.
The lesson of leaving the corners of our fields unharvested and bringing the omer to God are that we cannot take the blessings in our lives for granted. Our tradition offers us specific ways to acknowledge that gratitude: offering thanks to God, and being generous to our fellow human beings.
Rashi adds an additional commentary on the appearance of the mitzvah of leaving the corners of the fields in the middle of the sacred calendar.
Why does the text teach this in between the festivals, with Passover and Shavuot on one side and Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot on the other? To teach you that everyone who leaves gleanings for the poor is rewarded as if he had built the Temple and offered sacrifices there. (Rashi on Leviticus 23:22)
As we struggle in our broader community to address the challenges of /homelessness, may we open our eyes to the human suffering around us. Through our actions, let us build a Temple of compassion and generosity as we recognize that so many of the blessings in our lives come from the Ultimate Source of compassion and generosity.