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This Week’s Torah Portion: The Meaning of Giving

Parshat Emor: Leviticus 21:1-24:23; Ezekiel 44:15-31.

By Rabbi Alana Alpert

Tzedakah can seem unnatural. Why would we want to give up what we have?

When we have a lot, we say, “It’s mine; I (or my parents) worked hard for it and may need it at some point.”

When we have (or think we have) little, we say, “It’s mine; I need it, so I can’t give it away.” The instinct to protect or even hoard our resources runs deep; but Judaism offers practices to unlearn this mentality.

Parashat Emor teaches the famous mitzvah: “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 am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 23:22).

When reading the Hebrew, you’ll notice the first verb is in the plural and the following are singular. Rabbi Moshe Alshech, a 16th-century commentator from Tsfat, offers a radical reading of the verse that dispels the myth of ownership that underlies this instinct to hoard, in this case the harvest. He writes, “Do not think that you are giving to the poor from your own possession, or that I despised the poor person by not giving him as I gave you. … The Torah uses the plural to designate the common ownership of the field by the owner, the poor and the stranger; for in truth, they share in it.”

Ultimately then, I am simply giving the poor their share. I may have a deed to the land. I may have sown the seeds. I may have plowed the field. But the harvest does not belong to me. And so the verses remind us to curb our proprietary reaction to acquiring wealth. Alshech seems to be saying that it isn’t just whether I give that matters; it’s how I relate to the act. I don’t get to feel righteous; that would be like patting myself on the back for not stealing.

There seems to be more at work in this mitzvah than wealth redistribution. The commandment could have dictated one section be designated, but rather the borders of “private property” are challenged at every corner. The law could have directed the owner of the field to simply deliver a certain quantity to the town square or a neutral zone. But the needy actually enter the landowners’ domain: not receiving, but reclaiming.

What are the psycho-social implications of the blurring of these boundaries? The owner can’t hide from the poor. The Torah can’t imagine a secure fence, let alone the level of insulation and segregation we experience today.

The corners of our field do not belong to us; they never did. We cannot glean all the way to the edges of the field even if the produce yield is low. Let us struggle to rise above the natural reaction to hoard out of pride or fear and,rather, sanctify our harvests through giving the poor what is rightfully theirs.

Alana Alpert is the director of Detroit Jews for Justice (detroitjewsforjustice.org) and the rabbi of Congregation T’chiyah in Oak Park.The Meaning of Giving

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