Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Emor (Leviticus 21-24) To Life!

When you reap the harvest of your Land, you shall not completely remove the corner of your field during your harvesting, and you shall not gather up the gleanings of your harvest. [Rather,] you shall leave these for the poor person and for the stranger. I am the Lord, your G-d. (ibid. 23:22)
The latter part of this week’s Torah portion is a discussion about the various aspects of the festivals. In the middle of the discussion, before getting to Rosh Hashanah, the Torah digresses to talk about the mitzvah that we leave a corner of the field for the poor. According to the Midrash, the reason for this juxtaposition is to give us merit (i.e. from the charitable act of giving to the poor) just before the Day of Judgement (Rosh Hashanah). Question: Of all themitzvos we could focus on in the weeks leading to Rosh HaShanah, why is this one singled out as the most ideal source of merit? This question is raised in one of the most profound Torah commentaries of the 20th century,Meshech Chochmah, by Rav Meir Simcha-1843-1926-of Dvinsk); his approach is novel.
Rosh Hashanah is at the time of year that follows the harvest season. This is peculiar when we consider that the Talmud says that G-d judges a person “as (s)he is then and there;” i.e. the spiritual state (s)he is in at that time. If so, then presumably the best time for the Jewish People to be judged is when they are distinguished in their conduct, which is during the winter months. There are no fields to sow and harvest; during those periods our free time is spent in Torah study and other spiritual pursuits. It could be argued that a better time for judgement (i.e Rosh HaShanah) would be specifically following the winter months, when we are at our spiritual high. Why, then, is the period immediately following the harvest the best time for Rosh Hashanah?

The answer lies in the mitzvah of Peah, the commandment to leave a corner of one’s field untouched so that that the poor can take it at their convenience. Their dignity remains intact because they don’t need anyone’s permission to take the crops and they don’t have to beg for charity. On Rosh Hashanah, when our very existence is being judged and we wish to receive life, one of the most promising ways to accomplish this is for us ourselves to bestow life on others through acts of kindness. However, some acts of kindness are greater than others. When we give food or money to another person it is wonderful and meritorious-but I am the one who has the right to choose to whom I will give; I determine who is most worthy. In contrast, the verse quoted above speaks specifically about Peah, the mitzvah to leave over a corner of the field for the poor. Although it is a form of tzedakah, it is not formally given at all; the crops are simply left in the field for others to collect. This means that they may be collected by people whom we might deem not worthy of receiving them. One doesn’t have the option to refuse to leave the corners of his field because he wants to be the one to decide whether the recipient of his assets is worthy of receiving them; it’s a mitzva to be done.
This is the distinctive element that infuses these gifts with a special quality. By leaving these items in the field, thereby bestowing life to others even if they are not necessarily deserving, then we too are able to receive life even, strictly speaking, we might not be deserving.
This explains why Rosh Hashanah is at the end of the harvest season. Had it come in the winter, when we weren’t involved in the harvest, we might have had more time to pray, learn Torah, and be involved in spiritual pursuits but we would not have had the merit of helping the poor, even those we didn’t deem worthy. The juxtaposition of leaving over a corner of the field and having a successful judgment on Rosh Hashanah is no coincidence. In light of this idea, it appears to be the most auspicious day for us to be judged.
The takeaway from this is an awareness that if we want G-d give us life, even when we don’t deserve it, we must take care of others even though they might not deserve it. “Life” doesn’t merely mean being alive rather than being dead, it also entails mental and physical health, and quality of life. On Rosh Hashanah, one of the most stirring prayers,Unesanneh Tokef, ends with a recognition that although we are alive, there’s no guarantee that life will be pleasant.
Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.
There are scandals at work and marriage, and other areas of personal life. Sometimes a person’s life goes into a spiral even though (s)he was merely a victim of circumstance. We ask G-d for life-a good and peaceful life but we must remember to allow others to have the possibility of a good and peaceful life. That means listening to someone unload, even though (s)he might be unpleasant and difficult. You think, “(s)he brought it on himself/herself. (S)He made the bed, (s)he needs to sleep in it; it’s not my problem.” Considering the idea above, a person can reframe the situation and bring about a paradigm shift. “Let me take this person out for a cup of coffee and listen to him or her for no reason other than I want to give them life.” (S)He will feel so much better after the conversation and, as frequently happens, you might discover that this person is not as worthless as you had thought. Try this with one person, someone who doesn’t deserve it, this year. In addition to getting points ‘upstairs,’ at the same time you will be giving yourself the gift of life because true living happens every time we come out of our comfort zone to help someone else.
(Sources: Vayikra Raba 29:2; Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah 1:3 and Bavli ibid. 16b; Midrash Raba (Kleinman EditionVayikra v. II; Chap. 29; 3:1; Journeys In Torah (Emor) by Rabbi Emanuel Bernstein)