Parashat Emor (5780 – 2020)
Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23
Our Torah portion includes a long discussion about the holy days to be observed throughout the Jewish year. The Torah begins with Passover, the festival of the liberation of the Jewish people, and then tells us to count 50 days until the harvest holiday of Shavuot. (We are in the midst of this counting “of the `omer” right now.) Then it proceeds to the holidays of Rosh Ha-shanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.
Readers have noticed that, at the conclusion of describing the ritual offerings of the Shavuot holiday, the Torah chooses to repeat a commandment, previously mentioned, that has nothing to do with the holiday rituals: “And when you cut down the harvest of your land, do not finish off the corner of your field when you harvest it; and do not collect the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them to the poor and the stranger; I am the Eternal, your Almighty God.” (Lev. 23:22)
Why is this seeming unconnected law placed in the midst of the ritual laws of the festivals? One sage drew this lesson: “This is to teach you that anyone who gives the harvest leavings to the poor as is proper – we account it for him as if he built the Holy Temple and offered his sacrifices within it.” (Sifra 13:12, cited by Rashi) Once more we are reminded that our commitment to the needy and the marginal is of utmost concern, and is accounted to be just as sacred as our ritual service to God. This is a lesson that we must relearn over and over, especially during this pandemic. The fate of the needy and marginal hangs in the balance.
Another commentator reads the verse to give added rhetorical weight to this message. The verse ends: “I am the Eternal, your Almighty God.” To whom is God talking? Our usual reading is that God is admonishing us – the fortunate landowners and harvesters – to obey these commands to care for the needy. But R. Ovadiah Sforno has a surprising new reading. He offers, instead, that God has turned around in mid-sentence and is now directly addressing the needy and marginal, themselves! God tells the fortunate landowners to limit their harvesting and leave enough for the poor. And then God pivots and directly declares to the poor: “See? I am on your side. I am your God!”
What an audacious leap of the imagination! We are meant to understand that God is not only speaking to the privileged. God knows that the poor are listening and waiting to see who – and Who – will stand up for them. God’s turning to them reveals God’s sense of responsibility to the powerless. And it shows God being proud when God succeeds in advocating on their behalf. The poor are no longer to be considered “them” as compared to “us.” Rather, God is with the poor. For God, it is the poor and marginal who are the in-group, the “us.” The outsider is the one who needs to be prompted by God to heed the needy, the ones God hold near.
Now, as we look at ourselves in the mirror that this pandemic holds up to our faces, the question is whether we will decide to emulate God’s attention to the needy underclass as we contemplate how to repair this crippled society of ours.
Rabbi David Greenstein
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Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein