Obligations to the Poor at Harvest Time.

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Two other features of that injunction are noteworthy. First, it is largely unenforceable. Compliance is a matter of personal choice. There is no provision for a horde of bureaucrats to sweep through the fields to exercise oversight. Much of what is expected is in fact beyond measure because it is utterly subjective. The ordinance projects an ideal of mutual responsibility attainable only if internalized by each landowning member of the community, which is why the text ends with a resounding reference to God: "I the Lord am your God." Philanthropy springs from faith. God inspires us to reach beyond ourselves.


Second, the beneficiaries of our idealism include the stranger, who is even more vulnerable than the impoverished native. A touch of universalism informs this vision of society. Charity does not begin strictly athome, a principle on which the book of Ruth turns. Having accompanied her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Judah, Ruth, a Moabite and also bereft of husband and child, takes to the fields at harvest time to feed them both. She chances to glean on the field of Boaz, a blood relative of Naomi. Boaz takes Ruth in and quickly gains the right to a levirate marriage. Their nobility is duly rewarded with a great grandson named David, who is destined to be ancient Israel's greatest king. In short, the good that may result from a modest act of charity should never be undervalued.

Ovadyah Sforno, rabbi, humanist, physician and leader of Italian Jewry in the first half of the 16th century, stressed in his Torah commentary the textual context of this charitable ordinance within our parashah. He notes that it follows directly upon the passage requiring Israelite farmers to bring to the temple or tabernacle first fruits, specifically bread made from the new crop of wheat about to be harvested. A token of thanksgiving to God for the bounty of the land, the act releases the produce for human consumption. Precisely at this moment of gratitude, observes Sforno, the pilgrim is reminded to remember the dispossessed when he returns home to harvest the fruits of his labor.

The setting of the text amplifies its meaning. Sforno quotes a cryptic adage to make the point: "The salt of wealth is charity (Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 66a)," that is, to preserve our wealth we need to diminish it through acts of kindness. The Torah warns the farmer in his state of self-satisfaction that God cares as much for the gleaners as for the reapers. The well-off are but divine instruments for alleviating human suffering.

Yet, we should not romanticize the saving power of faith based charity. The life of a gleaner always hung in the balance. The conscience of most landowners obliged them to do no more than the minimum, if that much.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.