Thursday, May 15, 2008

Emor: earning your keep

Parshat Emor

The Torah talks about the obligations of the farmer to leave in his field various forms of charity for the poor - the fallen stalks, the corner of the field, etc.

Why are we obligated to leave the grains in this fashion?
what is wrong with the normal method of giving tzedaka where we give the charity to the poor fellow? Why here is the landowner not allowed to pick it up and distribute, rather he has to leave it for the poor to take?

Nowadays, most of us are not farmers and do not have fields within which we can leave the corner for the poor, so what lesson can we learn from this mitzvah?

Many give an answer to the above question by saying that this is a form of anonymous giving. The poor man can come in the night and take it, when nobody can see. It saves him the embarrassment.

That answer does not seem complete, because even with giving money there are ways it can be done anonymously, even with giving grains the owner could pick it up and do it anonymously. Also, it is not really anonymous. All the poor come together and try to be the first to take the grains. We even see by Boaz that this was the case, as the Megillas Ruth says that Boaz was impressed by how he noticed Ruth wait until the others had finished scavenging and she only took what was left at the end. So these forms of tzedaka are often not really anonymous.

I have an answer I would like to suggest. I think the method is used here to allow the poor man some dignity. We give tzedaka in other ways, with money or chesed. But those forms of tzedaka are, while necessary in order to support the poor, also prone to shame, even if done in the best of ways and with the best of intentions. Nobody likes to take charity, and the poor only do it because they have to.

By setting up this method, we offer the poor charity in a way that is dignified. In this situation, they are working for their food. Not just taking a handout. Here the poor man can go home proud of what he accomplished. He can say he put in a hard days work and earned his bread on that day.

For whatever reason, bad mazal, this fellow is poor. Maybe he lost his job, maybe he has bad health, whatever. he wants to earn his own keep. Everybody does. This gives him an opportunity to feel as though, at least on that day, he has not just taken a handout, but actually earned his keep.

And this can be a lesson to us today as well. Yes, we have to give tzedaka, both of our time and of our money. We are obligated to. But maybe, in addition to that, we can also find ways to help the poor while allowing themselves to feel like they accomplished. Help them find jobs, offer them to work, when appropriate, even on small odd-jobs, and the like. Let him feel proud that he has earned his bread one day.

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