Celebrating our Holidays While Helping People in Need
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
One of the themes of this week’s parashah, parashat Emor, is the holidays of the Jewish calendar. Chapter twenty-three of Vayikra (Leviticus) describes the different holidays we have around the year.
The list of holidays starts with Shabbat, then continues with Passover, the counting of the Omer, Shavuot (although it is not given a name), Rosh Hashanah (again without being named), then Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and finally Shemini Atzeret.
The description includes the sacrifices that must be offered in each holiday, as well as some of the rituals that individuals must observe – practices like not performing any labor, taking the four Species on Sukkot, eating unleavened bread on Passover, and so on.
But there is one verse appearing precisely in the middle of this detailed calendar of holidays that does not seem to fit. It is verse 22, which comes between the descriptions of Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah.
It is written in the Torah: “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 the Lord am your God.” (Leviticus 23:22)
What does this verse have to do with the holidays? Why is this verse placed here?
Ibn Ezra, the twelfth century Spanish rabbi, points out that it appears precisely in the context of the holiday of Shavuot. As an agricultural holiday, Shavuot marks the beginning of the barley harvest. Barley is the first of the major cereal grains to ripen. Wheat comes later on during the summer. As we are getting excited to start bringing in the grain, the Torah repeats its instruction to leave the corners of the fields unharvested for the poor and the strangers in our communities.
Ramban and Rashbam offer a different explanation. They say that it has to do with the description of the Omer a few verses earlier. The Torah describes what is going to happen when the Israelites enter the Promised Land. They are going to plant their crops and reap the harvest. Before they can consume any of that crop themselves, they have to bring the first sheaf, the omer, to the Priest. He will then wave it around as an elevation offering before God. This is going to take place, at the earliest, on the second day of Passover. None of the new crop may be consumed until this omer waving presentation has taken place.
Rashi thinks that the reason the Torah places this verse concerned to the corner of the field amidst the festivals is to teach us that one who leaves the gleanings, the forgotten sheaf, and the corner of the field to the needy person as it ought to be, is regarded as though he had built the Temple and offered his sacrifices therein (cf. Sifra, Emor, Chapter 13 11).
I would like to add to these explanations that this verse is inserted in the midst of the festivals to teach us that when we are joyfully celebrating each one of our festivals during the year, we should have in mind the people who are in need and help them and support them in some way. Maybe we do not have fields to leave the gleanings, the forgotten sheaf, and the corner of the field, but we can observe the spirit of this verse. For example, we have organized at Temple Beth El mitzvah projects close to our festivals in order to celebrate and help people in need at the same time. We had a very successful clothing drive close to Hanukkah and a toiletries drive before Passover, and we are planning to have more mitzvah projects close to other festivals during the year.
Following the lesson of this week’s parashah, may we be able to celebrate our festivals with joy and happiness while we help and support people in need.