Remembering the Needy

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by David Silverberg


Embedded within the portion dealing with the festivals, in between the Torah's discussions of counting the Omer and Shavuot, there appears the requirement to leave certain parts of one's field to the poor:

"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." (23:22) 

Just last week, in Parashat Kedoshim, we read of these mitzvot in almost identical form:

"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 the Lord am your God." (19:9-10)

Two blatant questions present themselves.  Firstly, why does the Torah feel it necessary to repeat these mitzvot?  Secondly, once the Torah does decide to reiterate them, why does it do so specifically here, in the middle of the discussion of the festivals?

Rashi cites Chazal's answers to these questions.  The Torah repeated these mitzvot to indicate that a violator commits two prohibitions.  The location of these mitzvot amongst the festivals teaches us that one who gives the appropriate gifts to the poor is considered as having built the Mikdash and offered sacrifices therein.

Ibn Ezra and Ramban, however, adopt different approaches.  Ibn Ezra suggests that these mitzvot appear immediately following the mitzva regarding the festival of Shavuot because Shavuot is "the festival of the harvest."  The Torah saw it appropriate in this context to reiterate the laws relevant to the harvest. 

A careful examination of the verses may strengthen Ibn Ezra's suggestion.  One minor, textual difference between the two accounts of these mitzvot may point to a profound difference between the situations they address.  When describing the farmer engaged in his harvest, the verse in Kedoshim employs the word "liktzor," literally, "to harvest," while the corresponding word in our parasha is "be-kutzrekha," literally, "when you harvest."  The context in Parashat Kedoshim reveals that this section speaks primarily to transgressors steeped in corruption and looking to take advantage of the less fortunate:

"You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another...  You shall not defraud your fellow.  You shall not commit robbery.  The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.  You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind… You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen." 

The Torah here speaks to a delinquent who harbors no concern for those around him and is willing to do anything for money.  The concern here is with one who would maliciously cheat the poor of what rightfully belongs to them and deny them access to his field.  The Torah therefore speaks of one who comes "liktzor," who goes to his field with the intent of harvesting it all, without leaving the legally mandated portions for the indigent.

In Parashat Emor, by contrast, the verses appear in a different context entirely.  Here the Torah addresses the God-fearing farmer who goes to harvest his grain for the purposes of the "Omer" meal offering.  His interest lies in fulfilling the Almighty's command.  The Torah feared that out of his intense concentration upon fulfilling this mitzva, he may come to overlook his responsibilities to the poor.  It therefore reiterated the imperative, only this time with the term, "when you harvest" - meaning, while you are already in the process of harvesting, intent upon carrying out the demands of your Creator, do not forget the poor.  Do not allow your focus upon the sublime obligations of the sacrifices to interfere with your basic obligations towards the less fortunate.

The Ramban posits a different theory to explain the sudden appearance of these mitzvot in the context of the Omer and Shavuot.  He suggests that the Torah here teaches one not to harvest the field in its entirety even for the purposes of the mitzva of the Omer; we may not allow the reaping of the Omer to override the mitzvot of allocating parts of the field for the poor.  According to his interpretation, the Torah is concerned lest one forego his social responsibility out of a certain ideology.  When faced with a conflict between the obligations of the Omer offering and the needs of the poor, one may opt for the former.  One may very reasonably figure that the great communal mitzva of the Omer should take precedence over the rights of the poor.  After all, the entire nation may not partake of the new grain before the Omer offering is brought; how could this national interest be overridden by the needs of a few paupers?  The Torah therefore comes to negate this line of reasoning; the obligations towards the needy should not be discarded by the mitzva of harvesting the Omer.

A dual message emerges from this explanation.  First and foremost, the Torah expresses here the importance of concern for the underprivileged, even at the cost of foregoing on significant matters involving our responsibilities towards God.  Additionally, however, we learn a more general lesson regarding the establishing of priorities.  A person may never decide what is more or less important based on his intuition and emotion.  Only Halakha can decide what takes precedence over what and what is overridden by what.  A person may at times be tempted to ignore halakhic demands out of his drive towards exalted values, overlooking small details in favor of what appear to him as greater, more important goals.  The Torah here negates such an approach.  A person is too small to grade the mitzvot; only halakhic criteria can determine our system of priorities.

In summary, then, the mitzvot regarding mandatory gifts to the poor were placed amidst the section of the festivals in order to prevent a situation in which involvement with the festivals causes one to overlook the interests of the needy, either through sheer neglect or though an ideology that prioritizes the festivals over the needs of the poor.

We may suggest a similar idea regarding another verse in last week's parasha: "You shall keep My Shabbatot and venerate My sanctuary" (19:30).  Rashi understands the association between Shabbat and the Mikdash as teaching us that the building of the Temple does not override the prohibitions of Shabbat.  Here, too, the Torah seems to address two phenomena.  First, the task of constructing the Midkash, itself a responsibility of paramount importance, may occupy people to such an extent that they neglect the mitzvot of Shabbat.  Additionally, people may think that such a sublime obligation of constructing the Temple should not be disrupted by such "trivialities" as the detailed prohibitions of Shabbat.

The message, thus, is a dual one - that we must retain concern for details and for the needy, even when we are engaged in the most exalted endeavors, and, secondly, that we must avoid establishing priority systems on our own, and must instead adhere to Halakha's guidelines of priorities.


(Originally delivered on leil Shabbat, Parashat Emor 5758 [1998].)