Uri Heitner, Kibbutz Ortal
Leave Them for the Poor and the Foreigners
The content of the Shavuot holiday may be divided into two main categoires – the spiritual and the agricultural.
In exile, the holiday’s agricultural content was irrelevant. The Zionist revolution renewed the physical connection between the Jewish people and its homeland, and restored the relevance of the holidays’ agricultural nature. The cooperative-rural settlements restored past glory by placing agriculture at the center of the holiday, and in design of the bikkurim and harvest ceremonies. The agricultural festival expressed the direct connection to the Land of Israel, settling of the land as a precept of the first degree, and renewal of agriculture as a way of connecting to the land’s Jewish past.
The holiday’s agricultural culture, with its songs, dances and communal customs was a model of Jewish cultural revival. However, true culture is built layer by layer. There could not be a greater anti-cultural act than attempting to toss constitutive national cultural assets into the wastebasket of history. The connection to the holiday’s agricultural past is of vital importance; however, the attempt to shake off anything symbolic of the holiday of the giving of the Torah, and thus emptying the holiday of its spiritual content, is tantamount to educating to ignorance. The crisis of agriculture and decline in its status weakened the status of the agricultural holiday as well. This devaluation along with the lack of spiritual content caused secular society to lose out both ways, and left it in a cultural void.
The agricultural holiday symbolizes the connection to the land; but no less, it must express the social message of the agricultural legislation in Jewish civil law – promising social justice, narrowing of social gaps, and eradication of poverty. The social super legislation in the Torah consists of the Sabbatical Year (Shmita) and Jubilee, highly radical laws, the peak of social progress. These laws are designed to turn the social order upside down, and create a new social zero point. Even if it gives rise to new gaps, it will at least prevent perpetuation of the classes, enable an equal starting point, and its unequal results will be erased at the end of the next Jubilee.
These laws were designed to realize the Jewish ideal of: “But there will be no poor among you.” To this are added more modest laws that give a concrete response to various social ills – Leket, Shikhah, and Pe’ah.
Judaism sanctifies social equality and encourages voluntary charity; however, the basis is mandatory legislation that takes from the rich to give to the poor and thus reduce inequality. When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you” (Leviticus 23:22). The owner of the field is required to leave a part of his field and his grain for the poor, and allow them an honorable existence.
In modern society, the rich are required to pay tax to the state, to ensure an honorable existence for all its citizens. This is the welfare state.
A state that shirks such obligations may be the state of the Jews, but it is not a Jewish state. It certainly is not based on foundations of justice, as envisaged by the prophets of Israel as promised in the Israeli Declaration of Independence.
Judaism obligates private property, albeit as part of rules that ensure justice for all. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch* discussed the topic of private property in connection with the Leket, Shikhah and Pe’ah precepts: “During the wheat and grape harvests, a man observes what nature has done for him, and what he shall bring home from his own toil. This is when he will utter that proud and compelling word: ‘mine’. At present, every citizen of a nation knows that anyone who says ‘mine’ must concern himself with others too. In the state of G-d, concern for the poor and the foreigner was not relegated to mere feelings of empathy. It is a right G-d gave the poor, and an obligation imposed by G-d on property owners.”
When we celebrate the harvest festival or bikkurim festival we must emphasize, along with deepening our roots in our country, the promise of social justice as a foundation of Jewish society. When we celebrate the holiday of the giving of the Torah, we must emphasize the social precepts, between man and his fellow – the foundation of Judaism. Rabbi Akiva did not define the ritual precepts as ‘a great principle of the Torah’, but rather the “love they neighbor” precepts (Leviticus 19:18). And it is not for nothing that this great principle appears
Next to laws such as the Shmita, “do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight”, “do not defraud or rob your neighbor”, “do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly”, and more. This is the substance of Judaism.
The meaning of the giving of the Torah is receiving a system of moral values that enables us to distinguish between good and evil and choose the good.
I shall not float in space
free of restraints
lest a cloud swallow
the thin strip in my heart
that separates good from bad.
I have no existence
without the lightning and sounds
that I heard on Mt. Sinai”
*Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch – one of the founders of Neo-orthodoxy in Germany in the 19th century. His method: Torah im Derech Eretz (Torah with desired mode of behavior)