What’s Stopping Us?
Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21-24)
What does a holiday celebration evoke in your mind? Great food? Sitting and eating and talking and celebrating with family and friends?
For most of us, the essence of a holiday is a feast at which we can relax and enjoy ourselves.
In the middle of this week’s parashah (Leviticus chapter 23), there’s a calendar of Jewish feasts. The seasonal holidays start with Passover (which falls in the first month of the year, according to the Biblical calendar). The list continues with the period of the Omer and the holiday of Shavuot, and concludes with Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shmini Atzeret. Just about every verse in this chapter describes one or another of these holy days and how we are supposed to observe them.
Except for one. There’s one verse that really sticks out:
“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 migrant: I the LORD am your God.” (Lev. 23:22)
This verse just doesn’t belong here, for at least two reasons. First, unlike the rest of the chapter, it describes practices that we’re supposed to do on days that are NOT holidays. (We are specifically charged to refrain from reaping and gathering gleanings and performing other kinds of agricultural work on festivals.) Second — and this is what really makes this verse stand out — it teaches what the Torah has already taught in a verse that appeared only four chapters earlier (in Leviticus 19:9-10)!
So why is it here?
Different explanations are offered by different commentators.
My favorite explanation is this: We should never — ever — forget the poor and the other marginal members of society, even on the holidays, even on those days when we understandably focus on ourselves and our families and our friends.
Rambam (Maimonides) makes this point eloquently. In the Mishneh Torah, he says the following:
When a person eats and drinks [on the festival], he is obliged to feed the migrant, the orphan, the widow and other poor, despondent people as well. People who lock the doors of their courtyard and eat and drink with their spouse and children without giving anything to eat or drink to the poor and the desperate –- such people do not experience the joy of fulfilling a mitzvah; rather, they experience only the joy of filling their own bellies ….
We are just past the midpoint in the Omer period. Shavuot will be here before we know it. Let’s celebrate the holiday: by refraining from work, by going to synagogue, and by celebrating with family and friends. But, then as now, let’s not forget Rambam’s charge to include the poor and the other marginal members of our society in our thinking, our planning, and our actions.
We may not be harvesting sheaves of grain; we may not be harvesting crops, but: Is there a soup kitchen we can support? Have we contributed to Family Table or Yad Chessed or Mazon lately? If not, what’s stopping us?
Rabbi Carl M. Perkins, Temple Aliyah, Schechter alumni parent