Wednesday, 24 Apr 2013

Written by Daniel Lichman

Our Torah portion this week discusses the period of the year that we are in now.
The counting of the Omer (Levitcus 23:15-16) is commanded in between passages that discuss the agricultural and sacrificial side of what we now know as Pesach (23:9-14) and the feast seven weeks later that we celebrate as Shavuot (23:16-21).
Our own celebrations of both Pesach and Shavuot are largely unrecognisable from their origins. They developed from an agricultural setting to the festivals of freedom and revelation that we celebrate today, with the counting of the Omer as the spiritual journey from one to the other.
Yet this portion reminded me that useful insight can be gained from spending longer considering how agriculture was a fundamental part of the social structure.
The passage that stuck out for me was the much cited example of ethical Israelite society:
And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the corners (peah) of your field, or gather the gleanings (leket) of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Eternal your God. (23:22)
We read a passage almost exactly the same last week (19:9-10; also see Deuteronomy 24:19-21). Why does it appear again now?
In Leviticus 19 the laws of peah and leket occur amidst the famous list of ethical commandments. The commentators agree that they are repeated here because of the agricultural theme of the section. For the Torah, the ethical and the agricultural become one and the same.
This passage is not just suggesting that those who are economically productive have an obligation to support those who are less advantaged in the society, it also considers how this should be thought about.
Key to this is a consideration of why both peah and leket are legislated for. Surely only one of these would be enough to provide for those who need it?
A clue to the difference between them can be found in the biblical narrative account of the process of gleaning in the book of Ruth which we read at Shavuot.
At the start of the second chapter Ruth says “I would like to go to the fields and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone who may show me kindness.” When the owner of the field, Boaz, shows Ruth favour, he assures her that he has “ordered the men not to molest you” (2:9) whilst she gleans.
Whilst gleaning is legislated as a right for the poor and the stranger, it is shown here to be potentially dangerous for vulnerable people. It is also dependent on the kindness of the reapers which, as Ruth’s statement of hope suggests, is not guaranteed. Leket, an inspiring ancient ethical concept, is however, dependent on generosity and its process shows the physical and economic powerlessness of the vulnerable.
Peah creates a different dynamic. The corners of the field are not even harvested by the farmer. Instead they are left for the poor and stranger to harvest for themselves. Whilst the land is not theirs, it is as though the produce actually belongs to them.
The mishnah gives more details. It legislates that the amount of a crop designated as peah is to be at least one sixtieth of the field and that it must take account of “the abundance of poor people” in the locale. Whilst a generous farmer might choose to voluntarily put more land aside for peah, farmers are legally obliged to account for the number of people in need (Peah 1:2).
Leket and peah provide two complimentary models for how individuals and society can fulfil their responsibility to look after the needy within it. Leket, like the giving of charity, depends on the agency of a benefactor who the needy hope is kind and generous. Peah, as part of the legal structure of the society, provides a guaranteed safety net ensuring that the amount that is required is set aside to cover the needs of the needy.
For us, as we consider our responsibility to others, leket can serve as a reminder of our obligation to give the material gleanings of our own lives to charity; peah reminds us of our obligation to engage in broader politics to ensure the maintenance of our society’s structure of support.
Consideration of the laws of peah and leket, together with the theology behind them, are a helpful frame of reference that can enable our tradition to speak to questions of social justice in our society today. They can provide a framework for a Jewish conversation and contribution to the complex contemporary debates about taxation, the welfare state and the role of philanthropy.

As we read, during our Omer journey, about Pesach and Shavuot as agricultural festivals, the Torah invites us to consider what else we can learn from this agrarian society about our role in the pursuit of social justice today.

Daniel Lichman
April 2013

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.