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Making a difference

Emor | Leviticus 21:1-24:23

The second half of parshat Emor is known as Seder Mo’adim, the order of the festivals. It is the Torah’s most complete description of the major festivals, chosen as the Torah reading for the first two days of Sukkot and the second day of Pesach.

The parsha describes not only the festival sacrifices, but also many yom tov rituals we recognize, such as eating matza for seven days on Pesach, counting the Omer, blowing the shofar at Rosh Hashana, the arba minim — the four species, the lulav and etrog — and dwelling in the sukka.

But right in the middle of this — between the spring holidays and the fall holidays — is a single anomalous verse: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.”

This isn’t news. This same commandment about leaving part of the produce from the harvest for the poor appears in more detail in last week’s parsha, Kedoshim. So why is it here?

The logical explanation is that it follows immediately after the description of Shavuot, which is not only the holiday of matan Torah, the giving of Torah, but also the celebration of the spring harvest. Therefore, the Torah adds this reminder — when you gather your first harvest of the year, don’t forget that you also have a duty to the poor.

Logical? Yes, but there’s more we can learn. By placing this verse right in the middle of the festival calendar, with Pesach and Shavuot on one side and the Yamim Nora’im and Sukkot on the other, the Torah is teaching us that for our holidays and celebrations to be complete, we have to include those who do not share our good fortune.

The major Jewish festivals are celebrations of agricultural as well as historical gifts, and so we are to share our blessings with the poor and the marginalized. Every year, before each of these festivals, we are encouraged to give tzedaka so that everyone can afford holiday meals and rituals and to invite those who are alone or without family to share our tables.

Moreover, this is true not only of our holiday celebrations, but of our personal celebrations as well. Since 1986, the organization Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger has asked Jews to contribute 3 percent of the cost of b’nei mitzva, wedding, and other life-cycle celebrations to help feed hungry people across the United States and abroad.

The rabbis set one-sixtieth as the minimum amount of produce that had to be left in the field, certainly not a hardship for the farmer. Similarly, 3 percent will make little difference to those celebrating with family and friends — to the cost of a $10,000 party, it’s just an additional $300. But to a poor woman distraught over having to send her children to bed hungry, it could make all the difference in the world.

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