Today is Grandparents and Grandfriends Day at Gesher, and I was asked to give a brief D’var Torah, a word of Torah. This week’s portion is Emor, a portion that contains one of my favorite mitzvot, known in the literature as “Leket” and “Pe’ah”. Leket and Peach are examples of those practices that appear designed to create a social justice system in which those who have plenty can help the poor respectfully and sensitively.
The verse says:
וּֽבְקֻצְרְכֶ֞ם אֶת־קְצִ֣יר אַרְצְכֶ֗ם לֹֽא־תְכַלֶּ֞ה פְּאַ֤ת שָֽׂדְךָ֙ בְּקֻצְרֶ֔ךָ וְלֶ֥קֶט קְצִירְךָ֖ לֹ֣א תְלַקֵּ֑ט לֶֽעָנִ֤י וְלַגֵּר֙ תַּעֲזֹ֣ב אֹתָ֔ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
“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.”
The idea is to leave anything along the edges and corners to be collected by the poor, and anything that is dropped as you glean and reap the crop is also left on the ground.
It is clear that the goal is to create a system which the vulnerable have means by which to sustain themselves. But wouldn’t it be more helpful to simply gather the entire crop and then give some portion of it away? How is it more respectful to make the poor follow you as you harvest, waiting for whatever you drop or for you to finish except for the corners?
Rabbinic commentary on this question indicates a deep insight into human nature. They say that you have to let the poor gather for themselves because you are not allowed to help one person in a way that causes harm to another.
The insight is that our emotions and relationships would get in the way of fairness – we don’t have the ability or the tendencies necessary to treat everyone exactly the same, and we’d start favoring some over others, defeating the goal of the system. We like to think we’d be wise judges with our charitable decisions, and maybe give to each according to their need, but who are we to play G-d? That’s G-d’s job. So we leave it in G-d’s hands.
This is a challenging idea to bring forward to our own charitable practices today. When we donate, shouldn’t we consider our own relationships and preferences, and consider which organization has the most impact or the most need? Or are we supposed to look at the causes we care about and just give them each equal portions of total amount we will donate this year?
I don’t have a good answer, but raising questions that are based in our foundational texts can often lead us to think carefully about how to pursue justice with humility, and to recognize that this pursuit is a way of connecting with the divine.