Parshat Emor: The Tesponsibility to Give Tzedaka

“When you reap your land’s harvest, do not completely harvest the corner of your field. Do not collect the stalks that have fallen. Leave these to the poor and the stranger. I am Hashem you G-d.” (VaYikra 23:22)

One Shabbat I was leaving the synagogue accompanied by my oldest son – Yosef. On our way home we passed an older gentleman and he and I entered into a brief conversation. Yosef asked me who this man was. I told Yosef that although this gentleman led a quiet, humble life, he was a very remarkable person. This man was not a wealthy person. Yet, many years before he had invested a significant portion of his savings into an endowment devoted to supporting Torah education. I explained that people think that endowments are created only by wealthy people. But this gentleman realized that he did not need to be wealthy to make a difference through creating an endowment. He only needed to make tzedaka, a priority.

I have been involved in raising funds for many years. It is a difficult responsibility. But the reason for the difficulty may not be because there is not enough funds out there. Perhaps, the reason it is so difficult is because – unlike this special gentleman – so many people are willing to fulfill their minimum obligation. I am convinced that if each Jew gave the required ten percent of their income to tzedaka, we would have no problem funding community’s needs. But instead of each person fulfilling this individual requirement, there is a tendency to dodge the responsibility of giving and insist that it someone else’s job. Now, since everyone can think of someone else that should have the responsibility, it is very difficult to make progress. A friend of mine is fond of saying that to raise funds you don’t need to find people with deep pockets. You need to find the ones with long arms!

Why do so many not fulfill their responsibility of giving tzedaka? How should we respond to these attitudes? These are questions addressed in this week’s parasha.

One of the subjects discussed at length in this week’s parasha is the festivals. The Torah briefly describes each – beginning with Pesach and ending with Succot and Shemini Atzeret. However, there is an odd element in this discussion. In the middle of the narrative – directly after describing the festival of Shavuot – the Torah mentions the mitzvot of Peah and Leket. These mitzvot both involve the harvest. When a field is harvested, any stalks of grain that fall during collection must be left for the poor. This is the mitzvah of Leket. The mitzvah of Peah requires that the corner of the field not be harvested. Instead, this portion of the field is left for the needy. Why are these two mitzvot inserted into the middle of the discussion of the festivals?

Rashi offers an enigmatic answer. He explains that the Torah is intentionally juxtaposing the mitzvot of Peah and Leket with the description of the festivals in order to direct our attention to a common quality. In the discussion of the festivals, the Torah mentions that each requires its own sacrifices. The juxtaposition is intended to teach us that through observing the mitzvot of Peah and Leket, one is regarded as if he has rebuilt the Beit HaMikdash and offered sacrifices.[1] The difficulty with Rashi’s explanation is that it is not clear the observance of the mitzvot of Peah and Leket can be equated with building the Beit HaMikdash and offering sacrifices.

In order to understand Rashi’s comments, we must begin by understanding some of the common, curious behaviors that people have regarding their wealth and the attitudes that underlie these behaviors. Let’s begin with the behaviors. We sometimes find that individuals that are relatively scrupulous in their observance of halacha are not completely honest and ethical in business practices. Furthermore, even among those that are upright and ethical in business dealing, some do not fulfill their obligation in regards to tzedaka. What are the attitudes that underlie these behaviors? First, there is clearly a dichotomy that is being made between religious life and business dealings. One who is less than ethical in business but otherwise observant, apparently feels that Hashem has His domain within our personal lives. He has the right to require that we fulfill our religious rituals – Shabbat observance, davening, observing the laws of kashrut – but He has no right to manage our professional lives or business dealings. With this attitude this person dichotomizes and separates his life into two portions. In one portion he is faithful to Hashem. In the other, he is completely his own master.

Second, this person feels that his wealth is his own. He feels that although Hashem has a right to make demands upon us, He is not the master of our wealth. This attitude is closely related to a third attitude.

It seems that these behaviors reflect a world view regarding one’s own mastery over one’s personal fate. A person who excludes Hashem from his professional and business life, apparently believes that he does not need Hashem in this area. He is the master of his own fate. His own decisions control his fate. He is wise enough to secure his own success and does not need assistance from Hashem. It is not surprising that a person with this attitude will also feel that Hashem has no place in directing how one’s wealth should be used. If a person has earned his wealth without Hashem, why should Hashem tell this person how to use it?

Now, let us return to Rashi’s comments. Rashi equates the observance of the mitzvot of Peah and Leket with the building of the Beit HaMikdash and the offering of sacrifices. We all recognize that service in the Beit HaMikdash is a form of serving Hashem. But not everyone recognizes that the manner in which one conducts oneself with personal wealth is also a form of service to Hashem. A person who dichotomizes recognizes that we must serve Hashem. But through the dichotomizing the person eliminates Hashem from his a part of his life – his relationship with his personal wealth. Rashi’s comments attack this dichotomy. One cannot relegate service to Hashem to the Beit HaMikdash. Service to Hashem pervades all elements of our lives. We serve Hashem not only in the synagogue but also in the manner n which we manage and relate to our wealth.

Gershonides offers another perspective on the juxtaposition in our parasha. He observes that the festivals of Pesach and Shavuot both involve elements relating to the harvest season. On Pesach, the Omer sacrifice is offered. This offering is brought from the first barley grain of the harvest. On Shavuot the Sh’tai HaLechem – the Two Loaves – are offered. This offering is the first grain offering of the harvest brought from fine wheat. Both offerings have a single theme. They are expressions of thanks to Hashem for the bounty of the harvest. They are intended to reinforce the recognition that we are dependant on Hashem for our wealth. Our wealth is not merely a result of our own wits and wisdom. We need the help of Hashem. Furthermore, Hashem does not bless us with this wealth so that we may do with it whatever we please. He requires that we use the wealth that He grants us as He directs. The mitzvot of Peah and Leket express the same theme. Hashem granted us this wealth. He granted it to us with the expectation that we will support the needy. It is not ours to use exclusively as we please.[2]

Gershonides’ comments directly address the second and third attitudes outlined above. To the person that feels that he is completely in control of his fate, the Torah provides a reminder that this is not the case. Control is an illusion. Without the assistance of Hashem, we are helpless. We are also not the masters of our wealth. We have not earned it on our own. We only succeed through Hashem’s benevolence. So, it follows that Hashem has every right to direct us in its use.

One of the most fascinating explanations of the juxtaposition in our parasha is offered by Sforno. Sforno begins by adopting Gershonides’ approach. He explains that the grain offerings of Pesach and Shavuot are designed to remind us of Hashem’s role in our material success. But Sforno adds that the Torah commands us in the mitzvot of Peah and Leket as a means to retain our wealth. Hashem tells us that if we wish to retain our wealth, we must share it with the less fortunate. Sforno continues by referencing an interesting set of statements of the Sages. The Sages comment, “What is the salt – the preservative – of wealth? Giving from one’s wealth.” Other Sages phrase the lesson somewhat differently. “What is the salt – the preservative – of wealth? Performing acts of kindness.”[3],[4]

The general message of Sforno’s comments is easy to identify. Hashem gives us wealth. He rewards us and allows us to retain our wealth, if we fulfill our obligations towards the needy. If we ignore these obligations, we cannot expect Hashem to continue to act towards us with benevolence.

However, the comments from the Sages are more difficult to understand. More specifically, the Sages expressed their message in two slightly different comments. What is the precise difference between these two comments? Rashi provides some assistance. He explains that according to the first version of the Sages’ comments, preservation of wealth requires that we reduce our wealth by giving to others. We can use Rashi’s comments to understand more clearly the two perspectives contained in these two slightly different comments of the Sages.

The second version of the Sages’ comments corresponds closely with Sforno’s message. Hashem requires that we help the needy. He will only reward us with retention of our wealth, if we perform acts of kindness. But there is an additional subtle message in the first version. According to the first version, it is not enough that we perform acts of kindness. We must demonstrate a proper attitude towards our wealth. We cannot become so attached to our wealth that we cannot give from it. We must be willing to adopt an objective attitude towards our wealth and recognize that its accumulation is not an end in itself. We must be willing to step back and recognize that our wealth is a means to a greater end. If we cannot use our wealth appropriately, we cannot retain it.

To this point, we have interpreted Sforno’s comments as an insight into Hashem’s providence. In other words, Sforno is telling us that there is message in the pasuk regarding Hashem’s relationship to us. He rewards and punishes. We need to act according the prescribed commands of the Torah in order to receive the reward and avoid punishment. However, there is another possible way to understand Sforno’s message.

The way we relate to wealth is fascinating. We feel that wealth brings us happiness. The more wealth we acquire, the happier we will be. But I have noticed that anecdotally this does not seem to be true. We all know people that are relatively wealthy but seem unhappy. And we know others that struggle financially but seem very content in life. If our attitude towards wealth is correct, we would expect the there would be a direct correlation between financial success and happiness. But there is not obvious evidence that this correlation exists.

In fact a USC economist – Richard Easterlin – recently conducted and published a study on this issue. And he discovered that there is no correlation between wealth and happiness. The study, released in August of 2003, surveyed 1,500 people and concluded that, “people are no happier when they acquire greater wealth.” One explanation for this phenomenon is that the assumption that wealth is associated with happiness is founded on a faulty premise. This premise is that happiness can be purchased – or secured through purchasing objects. Every person discovers that, regardless of how desirable some object may be, once acquired it soon looses its attraction. Once this initial discovery is made, a person can come to two conclusions. One conclusion is that he simply has not purchased the right thing. And if he continues to make more and more purchases, eventually happiness will be secured. If a person adopts this conclusion, each purchase and disappointment is followed by an even more desperate attempt to buy happiness. This cycle can continue endlessly. But Easterlin’s study suggests that the initial purchase and disappointment points to an alternative conclusion. Happiness cannot be purchased. As long as a person continues to pursue happiness through acquiring wealth and then purchasing more objects, the cycle of fantasy, purchase, and disappointment will continue – endlessly. Instead, happiness must be found elsewhere. Maybe, Sforno and our Sages are suggesting that happiness comes from spiritual development. One who wishes to maintain his wealth – for his wealth to be meaningful – must learn to relate to his wealth from a more spiritual perspective. As long as a person’s attention remains focused on wealth and acquisition, happiness will evade the person. But once a person steps back and objectifies – once a person considers his wealth as a gift that can help others and advances to a more spiritual level of function – then happiness can be secured.

 

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 23:22.

[2] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1997), pp. 340-341.

[3] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, 23:22.

[4] Mesechet Ketubot 67b.