ב׳ באייר ה׳תשע״ד (May 2, 2014)
There are two small paragraphs in this week’s parsha which carry a powerful message about our attitude to others, and the need for sensitivity, not just to other people, but to all of G-d’s creatures.
One of these short paragraphs talks about the mitzvot of Leket and Peah, ensuring that when we harvest a field or crop we leave some for the poor and less fortunate (by leaving a corner of the field uncut, or by leaving fallen stalks behind for others to glean). The other paragraph talks about the prohibition of removing a newborn calf or lamb from its mother during the first week, and of killing both a cow and its calf on the same day.
On the upcoming festival of Shavuot we will read the story of Ruth, who, as a penniless woman in Israel, planned to survive by gleaning in the fields after the men had finished harvesting. Halachically, every single farmer had to leave a corner of his field for the poor, as well as the young grapes on the vine, and any fallen stalks of wheat or grain. There was no shame in entering the field to gather fallen produce, it was considered a mitzva, an integral part of how society worked. In addition to this, the poor had equal access to all crops and harvest, one year out of every seven years (the shemitta year), and they also received a ten percent tithe two years out of every seven, from every single farmer. So in general they were able to manage without having to beg or feel humiliated.
Strangely, the verses which talk about these mitzvot of leaving from the harvest for the poor seem to be very out of place in the parsha. They are inserted right in the middle of a section dealing with festival offerings and sacrifices. Why are they inserted here, seemingly in the wrong section, dealing with sacrifices?
Rashi quotes an answer in the name of Rabbi Avdimi. He says there is a wonderful message here for us, that someone who leaves food for the poor to harvest is considered as if they had built the Beit Hamikdash and offered the sacrifices! That’s pretty powerful stuff. The Torah is saying it is easy to feel sensitive to the holy and Divine service … but of equal if not greater importance is our sensitivity when taking care of the poor.
The Torah is replete with laws governing how we treat others in a sensitive fashion: No slander, no embarrassing in public, no harassing for overdue loans, no delay in paying wages, no harassing a widow and orphan etc … and the Torah does not stop at people. Our sensitivity must extend to animals too. There are many laws about how carefully we must treat animals. Yes, we are permitted to kill and eat kosher animals, but even that must be done with care and compassion.
There is a wonderful story of a small shtetl which had just hired a new shochet (ritual slaughterer). An elderly man was seated nearby as the shochet made preparations for shechita, and he watched him take out the whetstone and the chalef (the long blade which must be nick-free and razor-sharp), and draw water from the well to wet the blade while sharpening it. As the shochet sharpened his knife he looked up and noticed the old man shaking his head from side to side. He stopped what he was doing and walked over to the old man, “What’s wrong?” he asked, “you seem unhappy.”
The old man thought for a moment, then replied. “I was just remembering that many years ago I used to watch the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel Baal Shem), do the same thing. But there was one difference … the water he used to sharpen the knife was not from a well — it was from the tears of compassion streaming down his face.
The Baal Shem Tov had no qualms about shechita, or about using animals as food … but he was never desensitised to the fact that he was about to take the life of a living creature.
There are in fact many laws which teach us compassion for animals, even though we are permitted to work and eat them. We are prohibited from causing pain to animals, and forbidden to feed ourselves before our animals; it is prohibited to use two different species to pull the same plough (since this is unfair to the weaker animal), or to kill a cow and her calf on the same day. We are commanded to grant our animals a day of rest on Shabbat, and to send away a mother bird before taking her young, and many more similar laws.
As we go through life we can sometimes get desensitised to the feelings of those around us. We may feel that our employees don’t deserve any sensitivity, nor do public servants, bus drivers, street-cleaners, whoever it may be. We have a culture that tells us that we have rights, that we deserve everything, we are owed everything, and if we hire someone we have the right to treat them less well than we would like to be treated ourselves.
The message from the parsha is very clear – as Rabbi Avdimi said: Someone who leaves food for the poor at harvest time is considered as if they had built the Beit Hamikdash and offered the sacrifices! Our care and respect for the people we interact with is paramount, and as we have seen that applies to all of G-d’s creatures. When we take that to heart, we can ensure that the world we live in is a better one for all, a world as G-d intended it to be. Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Zalman Lent
Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of Chabad of Ireland.
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