Thou Shalt Forget?

Dvar Torah on Parashat Ki Tetze (Deut. 21:10 - 25:19) delivered on Friday evening 8/31/12

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze, has the distinction of containing more mitzvot in it than any other parasha – 72 to be exact, according to Maimonides’ counting.

I want to focus this evening on the particular mitzvah stated in Deuteronomy 24:19 ---

כִּי תִקְצֹר קְצִירְךָ בְשָׂדֶךָ וְשָׁכַחְתָּ עֹמֶר בַּשָּׂדֶה, לֹא תָשׁוּב לְקַחְתּוֹ--לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה, יִהְיֶה: לְמַעַן יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכֹל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶיךָ.

"Ki tiktzor ketzirkha vesadekha, veshakhachta omer basadeh, lo tashuv lekachto; lageyr, layatom vela’almanah yihyeh, lema’an yevarekhekha adonai elohekha bechol ma’asey yadekha" /

"When you reap the harvest in your field and you forget a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the orphan and the widow – in order that Adonai your God may bless you in all your undertakings."

 At first glance, this seems like a wonderful, straightforward sort of law.  It seems to show a praiseworthy sensitivity to the needs of the poor.  Indeed, some of you will no doubt recognize this mitzvah from its description in the Book of Ruth, traditionally read on  Shavuot:  Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi have fled from famine in Moab  back to Naomi’s birthplace in Jewish Bethlehem.  Chapter 2 of Megillat Rut describes Ruth gleaning behind the reapers in the fields of her kinsman Boaz.

However, closer examination of the mitzvah of the forgotten sheaf reveals two major difficulties:

First, from a practical standpoint, this is a pretty half-baked way of providing a safety net for the poor.  There may very well not be enough of these forgotten  sheaves to provide the basic food supplies of those who are in need.  For example, in the case of Ruth, Boaz ultimately needs to load her down with another six measures of barley in order to be confident that she has enough for her needs (Ruth 3:15).  That’s why the Jewish mitzvah of tzedakah extends far behind the provisions of this particular mitzvah of the forgotten sheaf.

And that’s why it’s important for us as Jews to advocate against cuts to governmental programs like SNAP (“Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program” , formerly known as “Food Stamps”) that would jeopardize our fellow Americans who live in situations of food insecurity.

Secondly, from a religious standpoint, what sort of a mitzvah is this mitzvah of the forgotten sheaf which can ONLY be fulfilled UNINTENTIONALLY?  (I.e., we can’t “intentionally forget”…) Isn’t it true that one of the most important pillars of Judaism is that human beings have free will   --- free will to choose how and whether to fulfill the commandments that tradition says were given to us by God?

A classic midrash from the Tosefta illustrates this conundrum:

 “A story is told of a pious man who forgot a sheaf in his field.  He said to his son – Go and offer a bull for a burnt-offering and a bull for a peace-offering.  [His son] answered: Father! What makes you want to rejoice in this mitzvah more than in all others in the Torah?  [His father] said to him: The Omnipresent has given all the other mitzvot in the Torah to be observed consciously.  But this one is to be unconsciously observed.  Were we to observe this one of our own deliberate freewill before the Omnipresent, we would have no opportunity of observing it! Rather [scripture] says 'When you reap your harvest and have FORGOTTEN a sheaf in the field…" (Tosefta, Peah 3:8)   

So, what ARE we, religiously speaking, to make of a mitzvah that you can’t carry out intentionally?  The "punchline," as it were, of the midrash spells it out:  Scripture ordains for this a blessing.  Have we not here a kal vechomer (a fortiori) argument?  If when a person has no deliberate intention of performing a good deed it is nevertheless reckoned to him as a good deed, how much more so when one deliberately performs a good deed?

In other words, the purpose of this "unintentional" mitzvah is to sensitize us to the even greater importance of doing "intentional" mitzvot!  

I think we can derive an additional lesson from this ----

Just imagine what the basic principle here might mean --- There are times in each of our lives when, even without consciously realizing it, we are doing good deeds, we are helping others, we are forging connections with God, we are making the world a better place.  So, if you are ever feeling like your life doesn’t matter, like your existence makes no difference in the world --- then this mitzvah of the forgotten sheaf inspires us to give ourselves a second look.  Each of us DOES matter.  Each of us DOES make a difference in the world, even when we don’t have the ability to perceive the subtle ways in which our presence is felt.  Each of us have helped others even when we didn’t know we were doing so.

This realization may help ground us as we approach the new year, as we get ready to face judgment for our deeds of this year that is ending. For in this season of teshuvah (return), we are not starting from scratch.    Surely, just as God knows our faults, God must also know how each of us has been a blessing --- even when we didn’t know it.

Shabbat shalom.

(c) Rabbi David Steinberg (5772/2012)


Posted on September 4, 2012 .