“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 Adonai am your God” (Leviticus 23:22).
It’s just that simple. This is our time-honored commitment to helping those on the fringes. While today we try to meet the needs of the hungry through access cards, food banks, food pantries, 412 Food Rescue and soup kitchens, way back when, we left the corners of our fields (pe’ah) unpicked for those in need.
More than 1,500 years ago, Rabbi Shimon asked why the dominant mitzvah of leaving the corners of the field happens in the corners of the field: “They said that a person must leave corners (pe’ah) only at the end of the field for four reasons: because of theft from the poor, wasting the time of the poor, for the sake of appearances and because the Torah states, ‘You shall not reap all the way to the corner of your field’” (Sifra Kedoshim 1:10).
Let’s try to get inside of Rabbi Shimon’s head and our own humanity.
How is it theft from the poor?
“This way, the farmer will not find an opportune time to say to a poor relative, ‘Come and take all of the corner (pe’ah) for yourself,’ giving the relative an unfair advantage over the other poor people who are equally entitled to the corner (pe’ah).”
Although Jewish law does give higher priority to helping one’s relatives than to helping others, some aspects of tzedakah need to be kept open for all of the poor, lest those without families go unsupported.
How does it prevent wasting the time of the poor?
“This way, the poor people will not be sitting around and watching all day saying, ‘Now he is about to designate corners (pe’ah).’ Rather, they can go and collect gleanings from another field and return at the end of the harvest.”
People often assume that the unemployed needy have time and can wait for the donor to give whenever it is convenient, but Rabbi Shimon makes it clear that the poor need even more consideration since it is so difficult to gather support from multiple sources.
How does it prevent a negative appearance?
“This way, passersby will not say, ‘Look how so-and-so harvested his field but did not leave any corners (pe’ah) for the poor.”
We should not be judging each other on the size of our contributions to community organizations. It is the giving, not the amount that matters.
And because the Torah states, “You shall not reap all the way to the corner of your field.”
I think it is that simple. For those of us who appreciate the human hand in the writing of the Torah and for those of us who believe that God authored the Torah through Moses’ hand, ensuring that the hungry have what to eat is an eternal value of the Jewish people.
If you would like to do something about hunger in our community, I suggest you download the app, “412 Food Rescue.” The mission of 412 Food Rescue is to prevent perfectly good food from entering the waste stream. With the app on your phone, you will be notified when local businesses have surplus food and when community organizations can serve the food to those in need. You will drive to location A, load your car with food and drive to location B, all the while being a hero. It might take as little as 30 minutes. Find out more at 412foodrescue.org.
It’s just that simple. PJC
Rabbi Ron Symons is the senior director of Jewish Life at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.