Two Aspects of Chesed

And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to Bnai Yisrael and say unto them, “The appointed times of Hashem, which you shall proclaim to be sacred convocations, these are My appointed times:” (Sefer VaYikra 23:1-2)

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corner of your field. Neither shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor, and for the stranger. I am Hashem your G-d. (Sefer VaYikra 23:22)

1. The Torah’s review of Pe’ah and Leket
In Parshat Emor, the Torah repeats the commandments of Pe’ah and Leket. These commandments require the owner of a field of grain to share a portion of the harvest with the poor and needy. The mitzvah of Pe’ah directs the owner to leave standing the grain in one corner of the field. Those in need are permitted to enter the field and harvest this portion of its produce for themselves. Leket applies to the grain that inadvertently falls to the ground during the process of reaping. Individual ears or pairs of ears that drop to the ground are to be left to the poor and needy.

Both of these commandments were earlier introduced and described by the Torah. Why are these commandments delineated again? It is also interesting to note the context in which the Torah repeats these commandments. As is evident from the first set of passages cited above, this section of the Torah describes the annual festivals and holidays. It provides a complete list of all sacred days over the course of the calendar year. The text begins with a brief reference to Shabbat. It continues with a discussion of Pesach and concludes with a discussion of Succot. In the midst of this discussion of the festivals – immediately following the discussion of Shavuot – the Torah inserts the reference to Pe’ah and Leket. What relevance do these mitzvot have to the Torah’s discussion of the festivals?

And HaShem spoke unto Moshe saying: Speak unto Bnai Yisrael, and say to them, “When you come into the land which I give to you and you shall reap its harvest, then you shall bring the Omer – the first-fruits of your harvest to the kohen. And he shall wave the Omer before Hashem, to be accepted for you; on the day after the shabbat the kohen shall wave it.” (Sefer VaYikra 23:9-11)

You shall proclaim on the selfsame day; there shall be to you a sacred convocation. You shall do no manner of servile work. It is a statute forever in all your dwellings throughout your generations. (Sefer VaYikra 23:21)

2. Pesach, Shavuot, and Succot as harvest festivals
Some of the commentators respond to these questions based upon the specific context in which the mitzvot of Pe’ah and Leket are reiterated. As explained above, the section in which these mitzvot reappear discusses the annual festivals. However, more specifically, the review of these mitzvot is inserted immediately after the discussion of Shavuot.

The Torah’s discussion of Shavuot is fascinating. The festival of Shavuot corresponds with the anniversary date of the Sinai Revelation. The liturgy for the festival consistently refers to Shavuot as the celebration of Revelation. However, the Torah never specifically describes Shavuot as a celebration of Revelation. In fact, the identification of Shavuot with Revelation and the characterization of Shavuot as a celebration of Revelation are found exclusively in the Oral Law or Tradition. How does the Torah – the Written Law – describe Shavuot?

The Torah describes Shavuot as a harvest festival. In the above text, three annual harvest festivals are described. The first is Pesach. Pesach is observed at the beginning of the harvest season. The barley crop is the first grain harvested. On the second day of Pesach, the Omer sacrifice is offered. This is a grain offering composed of the first harvested ears of the barley crop. From the day of the offering of the Omer, seven weeks or forty-nine days are counted. On the fiftieth day, a second special grain offering is presented. This offering – the Two Loaves – is composed of two leavened loaves of bread baked from fine wheat flour. The final passage cited above explains that the day on which the Two Loaves – the Sh’tia HaLechem – are offered is a full festival replete with a prohibition against labor. Of course, the festival to which the passage refers is Shavuot – the Festival of the Weeks. The final festival described in the text is Succot. Succot is described as the third of the harvest festivals. It is observed at the time at which the grain has been gathered-in and stored. It celebrates the completion of the annual agricultural cycle.

In short, the Torah describes Shavuot as a harvest festival and the time of its observance corresponds with the harvest of the wheat crop. Fittingly, the description of Shavuot focuses upon the offering of the Sh’tai HaLechem – a grain offering composed of fine wheat loaves.

3. Observance of Pe’ah and Leket is equated to the rebuilding of the Temple
One of the interesting explanations for the insertion of a review of Pe’ah and Leket into this text is provided by Rashi. He asserts that the Torah inserts its review of Pe’ah and Leket at this point in order to communicate an essential lesson. One who fulfills the mitzvot of Pe’ah and Leket is regarded to be on par with a person who builds the Sacred Temple and offers his sacrifices therein.[1] Rashi at various points in his commentary echoes the message of the First Temple prophets. Hashem requires that we treat our fellow human beings with kindness, dignity, and justice. We cannot disregard this expectation and replace obedience of these standards with worship through sacrifices. Sacrifices are intended as a catalyst for personal growth and spiritual achievement. However, if instead devotion to worship through sacrifices replaces proper treatment of our fellow human beings or is employed as an excuse for disregarding the Torah’s expectations of social conduct, then the sacrifices have been perverted and profaned.

4. The value and pitfalls of a personal sense of sanctity
Rashi’s comment and the message that it communicates are important on two levels. First, Rashi is forewarning us against a very real and observable behavior. Ritual worship does provide the worshiper with a sense of sanctity. This sense of sanctity can have a positive or a negative effect. It can be a positive influence if it motivates a person to act to a higher standard in all aspects of his life. One’s sense of heightened sanctity can motivate a person to relate to Hashem and to treat others in a manner that reflects the sanctity that the person feels. In this instance the person does not merely sense sanctity. He is aware of it. In other words, his actions reflect that he has truly sanctified himself and is acting out of an awareness of personal sanctity.

However, sometimes this sense of personal sanctity has a negative impact. This person feels that his sanctity is completely secured through meticulous attention to ritual law. Through the scrupulous attention to every detail of ritual law the person attains a sense – actually, a delusion – of personal sanctity. Secure in this delusion, the person neglects his obligations to his fellow human beings or may even act in a mean and abusive manner. Because of his delusion of sanctity, he feels entitled to disregard the needs and rights of others.

5. The Torah’s revolutionary concept of G-d
Rashi’s comment and message is significant on a second level. It is commonly acknowledged that through the Torah monotheism was established as a major theology. However, the Torah was revolutionary in another area. The pagan gods were perceived by their worshipers as powerful deities. These deities had many of the character flaws that were evident in humanity. In fact, the pagan worshipers based their understanding of their gods and their behaviors on a human model. The pagan gods were subject to greed, lust, jealousy, anger, and even capriciously careless behavior. Above all the heathen god was focused upon his own needs or desires. The worshiper’s duty was to placate his deities and thereby earn their favor and protect himself from their wrath.

The Torah introduced a completely revolutionary concept. The G-d of the Torah demands that we serve Him through the manner in which we treat one another. He is perfect and selfless. We worship Him in order to elevate ourselves. Through growing closer to Him and more devoted to His will, we are inspired to act with kindness and justice toward others.

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corner of your field. Neither shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not glean your vineyard. Neither shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger. I am Hashem your G-d.
You shall not steal. Neither shall you deal falsely, nor lie one to another. You shall not swear by My name falsely, so that you profane the name of thy G-d. I am Hashem. You shall not oppress your neighbor, nor rob him. The wages of a hired servant shall not abide with you all night until the morning. (Sefer VaYikra 19:9-13)

6. Pe’ah and Leket are discussed in two contexts
Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra offers an alternative explanation for the insertion of this review of the mitzvot of Pe’ah and Leket. He comments that because Shavuot is observed at the time of the harvest the Torah reviews other mitzvot – Pe’ah and Leket – that are performed at the time of the harvest.[2] Superficially, this comment seems simplistic and contrived. These commandments were described only a few chapters earlier. These commandments can only be understood as related to the harvest. Why does a discussion of the harvest festivals require a review of these commandments?

The above passages contain the previous discussion of Pe’ah and Leket. This discussion is somewhat different from the discussion in Parshat Emor. One of the most notable differences is the context of the discussion. In these passages, Pe’ah and Leket are described in the opening passages of a text that deals primarily with social responsibility. After describing Pe’ah, Leket, and related mitzvot, the Torah outlines a number of commandments that direct us to deal honestly, fairly, and sensitively with one another. What message is communicated by the placement of Pe’ah and Leket in this context?

And it was in the days when the judges judged, that there was a famine in the land. A certain man of Bet-Lechem in Yehudah went to sojourn in the field of Moav – he, and his wife, and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife Na’ami, and the names of his two sons were Machlon and Chilyon – Ephrathites of Bet-Lechem in Yehudah. They came into the field of Moav, and continued there. And Elimelech, Na’ami’s husband died. And she was left, and her two sons. (Megilat Ruth 1:1-3)

7. The practice of chesed as enlightened self-interest
Megilat Ruth opens with a description of the death of Elimelech. The passages do not provide an explicit explanation for his death. Later, Na’ami identifies his death as a punishment for wrongdoing. However, she does not specifically identify the wrongdoing committed by her husband. The commentators explain that the opening passages provide an allusion to the wrongdoing committed by Elimelech and offer a number of suggestions as to the specific sin. Midrash Lekach Tov suggests that Elimelech fled the Land of Israel rather than share his wealth with those who were suffering from the famine. Lekach Tov continues and quotes an interesting comment of the Talmud. The Talmud explains that poverty is akin to a rotating wheel. It never vanishes. It may recede like a spot on a wheel that is rotating away from the observer. However, as the wheel continues to rotate, the spot will reappear before the observer. Poverty may seem distant to an individual. However, the misfortunes that produce poverty recur again and again. If a person avoids poverty in his own life, he cannot be assured that his children will have the same experience. Even if his children are not subjected to poverty, he should not expect that his grandchildren will also be safe from want.[3]

Lekach Tov is explaining that Elimelech’s flight represented a lack of social responsibility. Society is a community of individuals interacting in a manner that benefits the members. Elimelech’s failure to help others and promote chesed – kindness – represented a delusion or blindness. Everyone needs a helping hand at one time or another. If a person succeeds in avoiding poverty, he should not assume that his descendents will enjoy the same success. When we promote chesed, we are engaged in an activity of enlightened self-interest. At a future point, we may need the chesed and compassion of others. Certainly, our descendants will need the chesed of others.

This is the message of the Torah’s earlier treatment of Pe’ah and Leket. In that discussion these mitzvot are presented as part of a system of social responsibility. Pe’ah and Leket are described in the context of measures commanded by the Torah that foster a mutually supportive and productive community.

8. Chesed as a reflection of Hashem
As noted above, the passages in Parshat Emor that discuss Pesach place emphasis on the Omer sacrifice. It is interesting to note that the discussion of the Omer begins with the statement, “When you come into the land which I give unto you, and shall reap its harvest, then you shall bring the Omer offering of the first-fruits of your harvest to the kohen”. The phrase “which I give to you” seems superfluous. However, this phrase communicates an important message that is introductory to the entire subsequent discussion. The Land of Israel is a gift from Hashem. Its harvest and its produce are an expression of His chesed. Sefer HaChinuch suggests that this message is the fundamental theme of the Omer sacrifice and the Sh’tai HaLechem of Shavuot. The harvest must be received with thanksgiving. We express our gratitude to Hashem and acknowledge His chesed through these sacrifices.[4]

Now, Ibn Ezra’s comments can be more fully appreciated. Pesach and Shavuot are occasions on which we recognize Hashem’s chesed toward us as expressed through the harvest. Our acknowledgement of this chesed gains expression not only through the offering of the Omer and Sh’tai HaLechem but also through our fulfillment of the mitzvot of Pe’ah and Leket. Our observance of these commandments is a personal reflection through our own behaviors of Hashem’s chesed. Furthermore, by sharing with the less fortunate, we demonstrate that the produce of our fields is a gift of kindness from a benefactor who requires that we share with others.

In short, the Torah’s two discussions of Pe’ah and Leket are designed to communicate two aspects of chesed. Chesed is behavior of enlightened self-interest. Only a fool believes that he or his descendants will not need the help of others. When we promote chesed, we help assure that others will respond to our needs when we are the less fortunate. Acts of chesed are also an acknowledgment of Hashem’s chesed toward us. When we act with chesed toward others we emulate Hashem and acknowledge His kindness to ourselves.

1. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 23:22.
2. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 23:22.
3. Rabbaynu Tuvia ben Eliezer, Midrash Lekach Tov, Introduction to Megilat Ruth.
4. Rav Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 302