May 12, 2005
Get What You Give
Parshat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)
I remember visiting Harvard Square in Cambridge 30 years ago when I was a rabbi in Brookline, Mass. Among all the curious-looking people, myriad bookstores and Harvard University buildings was a huge bin of clothes, furniture cast-offs and other items. The sign in front said something like: "Take what you need, and leave what you no longer need."
The concept was wonderful but the application embarrassed the poor, who would take items in full public view. People would actually try on clothes and jackets and look over the furniture before taking them. It was distracting even for those who knew better.
In the Mishnah, there is a discussion about the Chamber of Secrets in the First Temple, which served a similar function. Poor and rich would enter this room, take or leave something and then emerge from the room. No one knew whether the one who entered and exited the room was taking or giving -- the taking and the giving was done secretly behind closed doors. Thus it was called the Chamber of Secrets. It respected the privacy and the dignity of the poor.
In this week's Torah Portion, Emor, we find a verse that is repeated from an earlier portion: "And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corner of your field, neither shall you gather the gleaning of your harvest, you shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger, I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 23:22).
In Parshat Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:9), known as the holiness code, we see almost an exact text of the above verse in this week's portion. Its repetition in the Torah bespeaks its importance. God doesn't waste words.
The rabbis instruct us in the Talmud that the reason the Torah text specifies the corners of the field was in order to leave the most accessible parts of the field for the poor. The rabbis also instruct us that the poor should be allowed to harvest the corners of the fields just after sunset -- after the owner and his workers have already left their fields and after they, the poor, have tried all day to do their best to search for a job. (Other verses in the Torah instruct the employer of a day worker to pay him at the end of the day just for this very reason -- so he won't need to glean a neighbor's field to scrounge for food for an evening meal for himself and his family).
Twilight was chosen because it was dark enough not to be recognized but not too dark to find the fruits and vegetables of the harvest. The poor would then maintain their dignity as they returned home to have an evening meal. What a wonderful picture of a caring society: the poor and the stranger both able to have their food without being embarrassed.
One of the inspirational aspects of daily prayer in a synagogue minyan -- the gathering for the evening, morning and afternoon prayers when it is not Shabbat or a festival -- is making a contribution to the pushke. In the morning and afternoon it is customary to make this contribution after the Kedushah, the prayer acknowledging God's holiness in the world. We who are created in God's image are the doers of holiness. It is holy to give to the poor and it is an act of holiness to embarrass neither the giver nor the recipient. Some put in a coin, some put in a dollar bill and some put in a $100 bill. No one knows who put in what when the tzedakah box is in the back of the room, behind the congregants.
Similarly, on the High Holidays, most synagogues have an appeal pledge card with an envelope. In this way, no one knows which tab a person puts down -- so no one is embarrassed by a small contribution. One may even put a card in the envelope without putting down any tabs. No one should be embarrassed. On the other hand, it is not a violation of the Torah to be recognized for supporting synagogues, Jewish schools and organizations that do great work, because it motivates more people to give -- and so more poor people will benefit and more Torah will be taught, and more mitzvot will be done.
Sometimes synagogues will hear the cry that they are always asking for money. Since I know firsthand the good work that synagogues do and the numbers of Hebrew school children who benefit from dues adjustments and scholarships, I say "thank you" to synagogues that never turn away families in need. May every synagogue and Jewish institution honor the teachings in this week's Torah Portion to maintain the dignity of those in need and to appropriately require those who are blessed to share their blessings. In this way we honor the tradition of the Chamber of Secrets.
Gershon Johnson is rabbi of Temple Beth Haverim in Agoura Hills.