How to Really Help the Poor

A Commentary on Leviticus 19
by Ruby Namdar


9 And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. 10 And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger: I am the LORD your God.

Leviticus Chapter 19

19 When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow: that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hands.

Deuteronomy Chapter 24

I never cease to be amazed at the astuteness of this commandment, at its absolute sensitivity to human relationships. Usually, when it comes to feeding the poor, the first term that comes to mind is “charity”. The owner of the field (or the industrial plant, the CEO of a big bank, the shareholder of a large corporation…) finds it in their heart to share a little of their profits with the poor. This deed, presumably done out the “kindness of the heart” of the benefactor, almost always buys them some advantage in return: tax deductions, prestige, whitewashing of their image and, perhaps most importantly, a warm and fuzzy feeling of self-congratulation. A relatively small charitable giving can lend legitimacy to a lifetime of wrongdoing, of ruthless and dishonest business practices and of continuous disrespect towards one’s employees and subordinates. Charity can, and often does, serve as the perfect fig leaf for the rich and powerful.

The biblical text prescribes nothing of the sort. The commandment to leave the four corners of one’s field to the poor and to not pick up the gleanings that fell from the sickle while harvesting has absolutely nothing to do with the kindness, of the lack of it thereof, of the owner. The rich may be obtuse or sensitive, cruel or kind, greedy or generous – the Bible remains uninterested in their inner drama. The commandment is structural, not personal. Every field has four corners. The bigger the field, the bigger its corners. Every reaper drops a few gleanings. The more reapers, the more gleanings. The human factor, the question of will and deliberation, is removed from the discussion. Feeding the poor becomes a matter of geometry and gravity – it becomes objective, not subjective. The text in Deuteronomy completes the commandment and adds an interesting twist to it: it adds forgetfulness, the slippage of the mind, to the equation. If a crop was forgotten in the field – it is free for the taking. This practice, too, ensures that the owners good, somewhat-good or bad intentions have nothing to do with the redistribution of bounty. The owner cannot boast their generosity, patronize the recipients or claim the role of a benefactor – the crops were not theirs to give, they belonged to the poor to begin with.