Parashat Kedoshim

A New Look At Philanthropy

The commandment to leave behind some of the harvest for the poor challenges our assumptions about to whom the food belongs in the first place.

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God wants the farmer to treat the poor respectfully, not to rob them of dignity. Therefore, "leave them behind"--you are not giving a handout, but you will simply leave it, they will help themselves. "Don't completely glean" is the fact that you do not complete the harvest, which is the signal to the poor person that he is taking what he is entitled to, not what the farmer decides to give him.

The anonymity of the recipient--since the farmer does not know who picks his field--is what preserves the poor person's dignity. (Adapted from R. Moshe Alshich on the Torah, translated by E. Munk.)

While I cannot claim to have policy expertise in the realm of social welfare, I think that the dignity of the poor is something rarely considered in many current assistance programs. Food is not a privilege to be handed out according to the mood of the wealthy, but a right, regardless of social standing or status. The needy have a "prior claim" to a certain level of sustenance--if the better off don't provide the "corners of their fields," they themselves would be guilty of taking something that is not theirs by right.

This is a whole different way of looking at philanthropy--a person may indeed be generous, but up to a certain point, material things don't really belong to us in the first place. Rather, a Jewish perspective on material goods sees such resources as being loaned to us for the privilege of bringing about good things. (Maybe that's why they're called "goods!")

We are all stewards on God's land, as it were. This is not to impugn anybody's generosity, not at all. The commandment of peah challenges us to think about the distinction between generosity--which might mean "going above and beyond"--and basic obligations, which are incumbent upon all who can meet them.

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.