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The Corners of Our Fields: A Societal Structure of Giving

The Corners of Our Fields: A  Societal Structure of Giving 
Parshat Emor, 5781
Saturday, May 1, 2021

פרשת אמור, תשפ״א

Parshat Emor, 5781

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, May 1st, 2021

The Corners of Our Fields: A Societal Structure of Giving

At a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, President Biden proposed a slate of programs to expand governmental support of childcare, healthcare, cost of education, and stable employment. This comes after a year of stimulus checks, student loan forgiveness, and unemployment assistance, all efforts to stabilize our economy in the face of a pandemic. While all of these support systems would be perfectly lovely - no disagreements - if they were paid for out of thin air, our public debate stems from the reality that these support systems are funded largely by our hard-earned taxes. As citizens of the United States, we are obligated to give a percentage of our earnings from 40+ hours a week to help feed and clothe and educate people we don’t even know. For better or for worse, this reality is nothing new. Our Torah and Rabbinic texts create a society in which we are obligated to do just the same - to give a percentage of our literal or figurative produce towards those in need, even when we don’t know who they are or where they are from.

In both last week’s and this week’s parashah, we learn: “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 not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I, Adonai, am your God.” Just like so many other places in Tanakh, the your in your God, is second person plural, directed at you, the collective. We, as a Jewish people, are responsible for making sure that each of us is contributing a percentage of what we have towards those who need it. We do not just contribute to the Jewish poor, to the poor in our families, or to those we like, but rather, even to the “stranger.” We do not just contribute because it’s a nice thing to do, but rather, because we are obligated to do so. Just as our Torah sets up a system of government that ensures everyone’s survival and potential to thrive, no matter what they do for a living or who they are, no matter whether they are a resident or a stranger, we have an obligation to make sure ourgovernment - here and now - supports the lives of all those among us.

Last night, we studied excerpts from Mishnah Peah, which details eight chapters of how the Jewish community is supposed to deal with the mitzvah to leave the corners of our fields. The Rabbis of the Mishnah know that in order for people to give adequately, obligatory systems must be put in order. While the ideal would be for everyone to give generously of their own free will, the Rabbis know that minimums and maximums, percentages of fields, and collection times must be set in order to ensure the survival, health, and safety of all inhabitants of any land. The Rabbis set up a tax code and a welfare system, if you will. 

And further, the Rabbis of the Mishnah make it clear that if such a system is not followed, we as individuals and as a society will see the consequences. We learn, in Proverbs (22:22-23), “Do not rob the wretched because he is wretched; do not crush the poor man in the gate; For Adonai will take up their cause, and and despoil those who despoil them of life.” When we refuse a significant portion of our resources to those in need, our lives are directly affected. As residents of Shreveport, we know what happens when our city does not have enough funds to fix potholes and run-down buildings. We know what happens to the crime rate when people are hungry, to our education system when we do not support funding, and to our city’s safety when so many have limited access to healthcare. Through actively supporting policies that lend our public funds towards social services and through paying our taxes fairly, we start to fulfill our obligation to support our entire community. While we can certainly disagree about what percentages we should be contributing where, we cannot disagree about the basic idea that a portion of each of our earnings must go towards those in need, here in our community. And we must agree that the financial support we provide goes to everyone present among us, regardless of race, religion, socio-economic status, or even country of origin.

The well-known medieval commentator Rashi quotes Midrash and teaches, “Why does the Torah mention this idea of Peah (leaving the corners of our fields) in the middle of talking about pilgrimages and sacrifices? To teach that everyone who gives leket(leaving dropped sheaves on the ground), shikh’kha (leaving forgotten piles of produce on the ground), and peah (leaving the corners of the fields) to the poor uplifts herself as much as if she had built the beit hamikdash - the Holy Temple - and brought sacrifices within it.” Our journey towards a government who truly protects the lives and potentials of all in our midst is a much greater path towards mitzvot than any ritual action. Our taxes are holier than lighting Shabbat candles. Our speech is more sacred than fasting on Yom Kippur. By giving of ourselves and establishing a social system in which everyone must give of themselves, we rebuild our Holy Temple anew. And with our community’s increased access to health, to food, to education, and to safety, we see the sacred benefit of God’s Presence among us. Shabbat Shalom.

Mon, January 17 2022 15 Shevat 5782