OU Press

Unlocking Sefer Vayikra – Will the Real Owner Please Stand Up?

April 21, 2010

Questions and answers about the weekly parsha that will open up the text with questions and various approaches. The material is excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s new book Unlocking the Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey into the Weekly Parsha on Vayikra.

Will the Real Owner Please Stand Up?

Context

The Torah obligates a landowner to a series of five mandatory matanot la’evyonim, “gifts to the poor.” Four of these obligations are recorded in Parshat Kedoshim:

1. Leket: Stalks of grain that fall to the ground during the harvest must be left for collection by the poor.

Finally, at the close of each extended period, the mother brings a burnt offering and a sin offering to the Temple to mark her full re­entry into society.

2. Peah: A portion (preferably a corner) of the field must be left unharvested for harvest by the poor.

3. Olelot: Small, unformed clusters of grapes must be left on the vine for harvest by the poor.

4. Peret: Solitary grapes that fall to the ground during the grape harvest must be left for collection by the poor.

One additional gift is not enumerated in Parshat Kedoshim, but is recorded elsewhere in the text:

5. Shikcha: “Forgotten” bushels that remain in the field after the ingathering has been completed must be left for collection by the poor.

These obligations do not apply in our day due to the rabbinic concern, which developed over time, that these gifts would be taken by Gentiles and not left for the poor.


Questions

Why does the Torah obligate a landowner to these specific “gifts” to the poor? In what ways, if any, do matanot la’evyonim differ from the general halachic requirement of tzedaka, charity, that remains incumbent upon the landowner, as well?

Given that these laws are no longer observed in our day, what, if any, lessons can be learned from their study?

Approaches

The answer lies in recognizing the significant place that matanot la’evyonim occupy in the majestic societal vision of Torah law.

Focusing on the phenomenon of land ownership, the one specific cri­terion that has, throughout human history, distinguished the “haves” from the “have-nots,” the law conveys critical lessons for both the landowner and the poor.

1. Lessons for the Landowner

The land is not truly yours. Your stewardship is contingent upon the divine beneficence of the “true owner of all.” The limits of your possession will be marked by the rights of the poor who are granted free entry to the fields to harvest/collect that which is theirs.

1. Lessons for the Poor

You are not totally land poor. You have rights to the land and to its produce. You are granted free access to the fields to harvest/collect that which is yours.


2. Lessons for the Landowner

You do not really need to “have it all.” Your life will not be changed by that stalk or bundle that you leave behind. Move on with a full, peaceful heart and allow for collection by those in greater need.

2. Lessons for the Poor

“Workfare” and not “welfare” is the order of the day. You should not subsist on hand­outs from others. Enter “your” field, harvest and collect “your” produce with dignity and self-respect. No one will hand these gifts to you and the amount you acquire will directly depend upon your own industry and diligence.

With sensitivity and balance, the Torah moves to limit the hubris of the landowner and to magnify the dignity and self-reliance of the poor. Prop­erly understood and observed, the visionary laws of matanot la’evyonim are designed to lessen the psychic gap between the landed and the landless, thus contributing towards the establishment of a truly just society.


Points to Ponder

While each of the lessons derived from the mitzvot of matanot la’evyonim are relevant for our times, one point resonates with particular power.

As indicated in our study, the Torah’s demand that the landowner relin­quish ownership over portions of his produce is designed to benefit not only the poor but the landowner himself. By forcing the farmer to “let go,” the Torah reminds him that he does not really need to “have it all”; happiness will not be found in that last piece of grain, that fallen stalk of wheat.

This paradigm should move us to ask ourselves: do we really need to “have it all”? Will the next acquisition, the next addition to the house, the next technological gadget, make the difference that we look for in our lives?

A study performed in the University of Rochester and published in the June 2009 Journal of Research in Personality yielded surprising results concerning the relationship between happiness and wealth. Dividing goals into two categories, extrinsic (e.g., wealth, fame and personal image) and intrinsic (e.g., meaningful relationships, health and personal growth), the study surveyed 147 recent graduates concerning their central life objec­tives. The researchers discovered that those subjects who focused on and achieved intrinsic goals attained higher levels of self-esteem and a greater sense of well-being. Those who focused on and attained the extrinsic goals of wealth and fame, on the other hand, experienced higher levels of anxiety and unhappiness.
<brIn a similar vein, highly acclaimed University of Illinois psychologist Ed Diener, who has been doing research on happiness for more than two decades, maintains: “Materialism is toxic to happiness.” Even rich mate­rialists, he concludes, are not as happy as those who care less about get­ting and spending.


Excerpted from Unlocking the Torah Text – Vayikra by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin. Learn more about the book here: link.