Lev. 21:1 – 24:23
Rabbi Gary Pokras
Of all the books that had a significant and lasting impact on me, The Jewish Way by Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg is towards the top of the list. He opens the very first chapter with deep wisdom: “The Holy Days are the unbroken master code of Judaism. Decipher them and you will discover the inner sanctum of this religion. Grasp them and you hold the heart of the faith in your hand.”1
How fortunate we are in this week’s portion to find a chapter (Lev. 23) devoted to the festivals of the Torah. Chapter 23 details the various sacrifices and observances for all the major Jewish holy days. What is odd, however, is a seemingly unrelated verse at the exact center of the chapter:
“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.” [Lev. 23:22]
What is the purpose of this “insertion” into a chapter about the holidays?
The classic rabbinic commentators are not in agreement. Ibn Ezra and Sforno connect this verse to the Shavuot, which occurs during the harvest season. They see it as a reminder to pay attention to the special rules for the harvest season. Rashbam connects this to Pesach, when the harvest season begins, and suggests that we pay attention to the special rules for the harvest at the beginning of the harvest so that we will observe them all during the harvest. Others connect this to the counting of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot – which is often seen as a time for our moral character development. It is a reminder to treat each other with kindness and dignity.
My teacher, Rabbi Ben Hollander (z”l) – as he often did, turned to Rashi for inspiration. Rashi wrote that the verse was placed here: “to teach you that one who leaves the gleanings, the forgotten sheaf, and the corner of the field to the poor as they should, is regarded as though that person had personally built the Temple and offered the sacrifices within it.”2 In other words, this verse is connected to all the holy days.
The primary feature of the holidays in the period of the Torah was the sacrifices. Sacrifices, in Hebrew, are called korbanot. The word korbanot is connected by its root to the word karov, which means ‘close’ or ‘near.’ The purpose of the korbanot were to bring us closer to God. However, in our parasha, we learn that treating each other with kindness and dignity is among the holiest and most pious acts we can perform. If we really want to get close to God, it is not enough for us to observe the holidays as simple rites. Rather, we should allow each unique holiday’s teaching to settle into our minds and our hearts, to inspire us to act towards each other as God intends, and, in so doing to draw ourselves and our communities ever closer to the Eternal.
Here, in just one verse, is a beautiful window into the inner sanctum of Judaism – the tight connection between ethical and compassionate behavior towards each other, and our relationship with the Divine. One is not possible without the other, and true holiness should be cultivated in our daily lives rather than on some distant mountaintop.