The Instinct to Hoard
Even when times are tough, we still must give.
Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.
Tzedakah can seem unnatural: we never want to give up what we have. When we have a lot, we say, “It’s mine--I worked hard for it and I want to keep it.” When we don’t have a lot or are worried that we won’t, we say, “It’s mine--I need it, so I can’t give it away.” The instinct to hoard is common, and the Torah goes out of its way to urge against it.
In the middle of a discussion about the festivals, Parashat Emor repeats the mitzvah we learned last week in Parashat Kedoshim: “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: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 23:22).
Why would these verses, repeated almost verbatim, reappear in the midst of laws about the festivals? Scholar Nehama Leibowitz explains that the festivals--marking the completion of the harvest season--are a particularly joyous time, and in joy we might forget the poor. Indeed, the jubilation and pride we feel at a successful planting season may lend itself to a strong sense of entitlement akin to our response to tzedakah in a time of plenty: I worked hard for this harvest and I want to keep it.
The Land is Not Yours
Rabbi Moshe Alshech, a 16th century commentator from Safed, offers a radical reading of the verse, “and when you reap the harvest of your land,” that dispels the myth of ownership that underlies this instinct to hoard. He points out that “your land” is plural, explaining that “the Torah uses the plural to designate the common ownership of the field by the owner, the poor, and the stranger, for in truth, they share in it.” He says:
“Do not think that you are giving to the poor from your own possession, or that I despised the poor person by not giving him as I gave you. For he is my son, as you are, and his share is in your grain; it is to your benefit to give him his share from your property.”
Ultimately then, we are simply giving the poor their share. I may have a deed to the land. I may have sown the seeds. I may have plowed the field. But the harvest does not belong to me. And so the verses in Parashat Emor remind us to curb our proprietary reaction to acquiring wealth and to be cognizant of the poor in times of plenty.