Sometimes, people leave us unwritten messages. But they expect us to pick up on the cues and act on those messages. Rabbi Judah the Prince signaled an important message to us simply by the way he organized the Mishnah’s law collections near the end of the second century C.E. The first group of laws discussed in this rabbinic work is B’rakhot, Blessings. These teachings lay the foundation for our prayers and worship services to this day. The overriding theme is Gratitude; in the prayers we recite, we give thanks to God for the blessings we enjoy in this world.
Immediately following the teachings about Blessings and Gratitude, we find instructions about Pe’ah, Corners of the Field. While some Jews have recently developed an interest in farming, most of us remain city dwellers. What could agricultural rulings teach us?
A lot! Since our ancestors lived in agrarian communities, the rabbis’ guidance to them was articulated in the context of their agricultural lives.
Though the title of the second collection of rabbinic teaching is Pe’ah/Corners, as soon as we start reading, we discover that the real subject is how to provide for the poor in our communities. After learning how to express Gratitude, we learn about Philanthropy, that we are obligated to express our love for other people in a tangible way.
Rabbi Judah’s message to us is that the world is ours to enjoy; that’s God’s incredible gift to us. But the world is not ours alone; we are expected to share whatever we have with others. It’s an old message, but it’s as timely as the President’s recent State of the Union address. It’s as relevant to our Jewish community as the Alliance’s “Living On the Edge” campaign.
While the Torah tells us to give from the “Corners,” it doesn’t say how much of a “corner” to leave. The rabbis addressed that question. They said that a minimum of 1/60th of a field had to be set aside. But there is no limit to how large a corner of the field we should leave unharvested, so that needy people can come and help themselves. Similarly, they said that there is no limit to the extent of kind deeds, Gemilut Hasadim, we can do for others, and there is no limit to how much Torah we can learn.
In determining how large a “corner” had to be left, other factors have to be weighed: how large the field’s yield is, how many poor people there are, and how extensive the poverty is.
We don’t live on farms and don’t make donations from corners of crops, but our philanthropy should not be peripheral to our Jewish lives; it should be a central expression of who we are. We know very well that there are many poor people in Rhode Island, and in Jewish Rhode Island, in particular. So let us give thanks for the blessings we enjoy, and let us follow Rabbi Judah’s cue, leading us to a life of philanthropy, caring for those around us, some of whose needs we can meaningfully address by giving from the “corners” of our “fields.”
WAYNE M. FRANKLIN is Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, Providence.