Emor: Leaving the Corners, Building Community

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

This week we read parshat Emor, in which we find discussion
of the priestly service, the holy days, and what Moshe did with a
difficult legal case in the camp. Stuck right in the middle of the
discussion of the holy days is the mitzvah of peah, or “corners,” in
which we are told to leave the corners of our fields for the poor, so
that they could come and collect sustenance without having to beg for
charity. Rashi, quoting earlier sages, asks: so, nu, why do we have
this mitzvah of caring for the poor in between the commandments for
observing Pesach and Shavuot [the holy day of “first fruits”] ? It
would make sense to first describe the spring holiday and its ritual
observances, and then the summer holiday with its special rituals, and
then the fall holidays, and put this non-timebound mitzvah somewhere
else in the text. (Cf. Vayikra/Leviticus 23:4-22)

From a purely practical standpoint, it makes a certain amount of sense
to put the mitzvah of peah before Shavuot, which is the holiday of the
early summer harvest: before beginning the harvest, one should make
sure not to reap the entire field, so that some can be left for the
poor. However, Rashi brings a more theological interpretation: the
mitzvah of leaving the corners of the fields for the poor is listed
along with the holy days to teach that one who leaves the “corners”
and “gleanings” of the fields is considered as if he or she had built
the Temple and made offerings within it.

Rashi’s startling midrash [interpretation] creates an internal
coherence to the text which allows it to live and be relevant in
post-Temple Judaism: since many rituals are no longer possible without
a central Temple and priesthood, we might think that living in
covenantal relationship to the Holy One is also no longer possible.
Rashi’s commentary reframes the problem by pointing out that the ways
in which we can, in fact, live covenantally are “considered” (by the
Holy One, presumably) just as valid and beautiful as were the
practices of our Biblical ancestors.

So far, so good, but I also see in Rashi’s creative equation (leaving
the corners for the poor = building the Temple and making offerings
within it) more than just a theory of evolving Jewish practice. Why is
leaving some of the harvest for the poor like building the Temple and
making offerings within it? Because for our ancestors, the Temple was
the center of the entire nation by virtue of being the place where the
people felt the Divine Presence, and for us, concrete acts of humble
generosity and loving-kindness are what “builds” a sacred community
and helps us experience the Divine in the midst of that community.

I say “humble” generosity because the mitzvah of leaving the corners
of the field was done precisely so those who needed help didn’t have
to beg; those who had, gave what they could, in such a way that human
dignity was promoted as a communal value. For our communities, the
simple acts of attending to each other’s spiritual, emotional and
physical needs is what “builds the Temple,” as it were, laying the
foundation for all who participate to feel love and thus be drawn
closer to God and each other. When that happens, our holidays are made
even more joyous, and each day becomes holy.

Shabbat Shalom,


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