This week's Torah portion introduces the commandment to leave fallen harvest in the field to be "gleaned" by the poor, as illustrated here in "The Gleaners" by Gustave Doré from the 1865 La Sainte Bible.
This week's Torah portion introduces the commandment to leave fallen harvest in the field to be "gleaned" by the poor, as illustrated here in "The Gleaners" by Gustave Doré from the 1865 La Sainte Bible.

Giving is a pillar that holds up the world

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Ki Teitzei

Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19


The middle of the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) is packed with commandments — laws governing all aspects of civil and religious life and expectations of proper citizenship within the Jewish people.

But there is one area that seems worthy of extra attention in our contemporary cultural climate.

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953), a prominent rabbinic figure in Jewish thought of the last century, writes in his seminal work “Michtav Me’Eliyahu” that in order for one to emulate God, one must be a Giver.

Being a Giver means that one has a deep desire to do good for others — and a disdain for taking.

In the very beginning of Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, it states that the world stands on three things: Torah, Service and Bestowing Good (Acts of Chessed).

Giving is one of the three pillars that hold up the world.

This week’s Torah portion includes: “When you reap the harvest of your field and you forget a bundle in the field, you shall not turn back to take it, it shall be left for the proselyte, the orphan, and the widow, so that HaShem, your God, will bless you in all your work” (Devarim 24:19).

The commandment: Leave a forgotten bundle in your field for someone less fortunate. That means that you are supposed to willfully discard your property so that someone else can benefit from what you have.

The Torah is not making a suggestion that this would be a nice gesture. It is stated as a command to every farm owner. You have to be generous with what is your own.

The very next verse continues, “When you harvest your olive tree, do not remove all its splendor after you, it shall be for the proselyte, the orphan, and the widow. When you harvest your vineyard, you shall not glean behind you, it shall be for the proselyte, the orphan, and the widow” (Devarim 24:20-21).

This string is similar to the one mentioned above. You are responsible to leave something over from which others can benefit. Your property is yours also to serve others. In fact, the verse actually suggests that it is more than just a dry, perfunctory set of instructions.

“You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, therefore I command you to do this matter” (24:22).

A real act of giving should be accompanied by a sense of empathy. Remember what it was like to have lived as a slave so that you will find it easier to show mercy for others and part with your property. You have to actively try and engender the appropriate feelings that are required to perform this commandment with love.

Early in the parashah, we encounter another commandment involving lost property, but this time the obligation is on the finder and not directed toward the one who forgets his own property in his field.

“You shall not see the ox of your brother or his sheep or goat cast off, and disappear from them; you shall surely return them to your brother” (22:1).

The obligation of someone that finds an animal, and in fact, any personal property, is to return it to its owner. One should not “disappear from them” implies that you should not pretend that you did not notice the object and just walk away. You are required to find a way to reunite the owner with his or her property.

This is another example of having to align oneself to be a giver and not a taker. It would be easy to assume that finders are keepers and just pocket something that used to belong to someone else. The Torah makes it clear that you should avoid being a taker.

There is another mishnah that we find in the Ethics of the Fathers. The 13th mishnah in the fifth chapter talks about givers and takers. It states that there are four qualities in people.

“One that says ‘what is mine is mine and what’s yours is yours’ is mediocre and some say it is the quality of Sodom. ‘What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine’ is an ignoramus. ‘What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours’ is pious. What is yours is mine and what’s mine is mine’ is wicked.” An imitable giver is pious and a quintessential taker is wicked.

What is curious is the second statement. Why would it be that one who believes that all property should be shared would be called an ignoramus?

Is sharing not an ideal, as well?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), in his commentary on the Mishnah, explains that if a society would be organized as a collective without any personal property, then it would lead to a disastrous result because it would deprive people of the opportunity to be givers.

If everyone owns everything, then no one is really in a position to give.

Human beings need to be able to give. That is how they emulate their Creator and how they develop their character.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Elizabeth Bernstein, headlined “Why Being Kind Helps You, Too — Especially Now,” points out the direct neurological benefits to becoming a giver. It seems that science is pointing to what our Torah and our Sages have been telling us all along. If we want to develop as people, we have to start by focusing on giving.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto.