Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Parashat Emor: On Fields Without Corners

Uvekutsrekhem et ketzir artzekhem. “When you reap the harvest of your land” (Lev 23:22 and 23:10). What then? What do you do with your successes, your accomplishments, your wealth, your good fortune? Two things, according to the Torah. One in relation to God and the other in relation to people.

First, you bring the new harvest before God, to the Temple, once at Passover time and then again, a second new harvest, at Shavu’ot time. The time between these two holidays and their special harvest gifts, 7 weeks or 49 days, is counted, day by day, a count known as Sefirat HaOmer.

Second -- and the Torah interrupts its discussion of the holiday calendar to tell us this, even though the law already appeared once in the last parsha – when you reap your harvest you must leave the corners of your fields for the poor.

Take two actions when you achieve success. First, acknowledge that your achievements are not entirely your own doing, that you owe your good fortune to the God who has blessed you. Uvekutsrekhem et ketzir artzekhem. When you reap the harvest of your land, you might be tempted to think that it is all shelakhem, all yours ; you can hear this sense of ownership in the repetition of the suffix –khem. But no, the first step is to bring some piece of it to God, to move yourself toward a place of gratitude and humility. Out of this sense of humility, a turn to the poor is natural, easy. If the harvest is not entirely yours or your accomplishment, then it belongs equally to others, especially to those others whom God cares about, the needy.

The point of all this giving, according to the Sefer HaHinukh, is not only to feed the poor, but also to train one’s heart to feel content and blessed, and therefore generous, to have the feeling that one’s portion overflows, like the cup of wine at Havdalah. Even poor people are obligated to leave the corners of their fields untouched; after all, they, too, need to cultivate this feeling of blessedness and contentment, and the more one gives, the more one feels one has to give. In not cutting the edges, one acts grandly, generously, and trains oneself to feel that there is enough to spare.

Here, too, there is a deep connection to the Passover-Shavu’ot holiday period. The count from one holiday to the other is to last for sheva shavu’ot temimot, seven complete weeks. Shavu’ot is a celebration of fullness or contentment, both the fullness of the harvest and the fullness of time. The daily count reinforces this sense of contentment, as each day of life, of breath, is acknowledged to be a gift from God, and a source of great blessedness.

As it says in this week’s chapter of Pirkei Avot – there is a tradition of reading one chapter a week of this 7-chapter work between Passover and Shavu’ot – “Who is wealthy? He who is happy or content with his lot.”

Monday, April 19, 2010

Parashat Aharei-Mot/Kedoshim: Looking Out for Each Other

The second of this week’s two parshiyyot, Kedoshim, begins with the command to be kadosh, “holy,” in imitation of God’s holiness. What does it mean to be holy? The parsha continues with a series of many short commandments which together define the parameters of our holiness assignment. The commandments range from pe’ah, the leaving of the corners of one’s field for the poor to an injunction against lying to the need to eat a sacrifice within a prescribed time and place.

Let’s look at one representative example of these commandments. Lifne iver lo titen mikhshol. “Before a blind person, you shall not put an obstacle” (Lev 19:14). The classical rabbis interpret this commandment very broadly, to refer to a suma badavar, “a blind person with respect to a certain matter” or even, as Maimonides puts it, a person who is so blinded by his desires that he does not see the right path. One should not place an obstacle in front of such people, meaning that one should not give them bad advice or create an opportunity for them to sin.

Here are some examples the rabbis give (based on Nehama Leibowitz’s discussion). Do not advise someone to sell his field in exchange for a donkey, bad business advice which the advisor is giving for his own benefit. Do not sell weapons to a robber. If you do, you are creating new opportunities for him to sin, and in this, you, too, are considered culpable. Make sure to mark all graveyards so that you do not create an opportunity for a priest to defile himself unknowingly. Do not hit your son if he is larger than you for it creates an opportunity for him, in his largeness, to hurt you, a cardinal sin. Do not lend money to someone without witnesses or some form of documentation. One might think that such an act is generous, but it creates an opportunity for the borrower to sin by not returning the loan.

In other words, be aware of one another’s weaknesses and blind-spots and take precautions to protect people from themselves. One might have expected that the need to have witnesses during a loan transaction would arise as a protection of the lender, to ensure that his funds are returned. But no, here the emphasis is on the lender’s need to protect the borrower from wrongful action.

The structure of the verse speaks to this emphasis on human weakness. The verse does not say, “Do not place an obstacle before a blind person,” but “Before a blind person, do not place an obstacle.” In other words, first condition yourself to being aware of the blindness of others, of their special needs and difficulties, and then you will know how not to place an obstacle before them.

Among other things, then, kedushah, holiness, involves connectedness with others and concern for their special weaknesses. The Holy One Himself modeled such behavior. On the way out of Egypt, He led the people the back route for He knew that they would become fearful at the sight of war and want to return to Egypt (Ex 13:17). Worrying over the weaknesses of others is a part of divine holiness.

Later in this parsha, the Torah reminds us to rebuke one another in order not to “incur any guilt because of him” (Lev 19:17). The Sefat Emet reads the Hebrew, lo tisa alav het, literally, “do not carry on him a sin,” as meaning “do not throw the sin totally onto him.” Consider your own culpability in his sin as well. When one person is doing the wrong thing, we who are part of his community are somehow all a part of that wrong, all culpable for not having created an environment without obstacles, for not having protected him from himself.