And as you reap the harvest of your land, do not finish off the corner of your field as you reap, and do not gather the gleaning of your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger; I am the Eternal, your God.

(Lev. 23:22)

This commandment, that of pe’ah, is the foundation of the Jewish concept of tzedakkah. We saw it last week (19:9) as well. There, it is the first mitzvah bein adam lechavero (commandment to act ethically towards others) in a string of commandments, where it immediately follows laws regarding sacrificial meat. Here, too, it follows some Temple-related laws: those of the holidays. Last week, we were taught the mitzvah of pe’ah as part of a larger teaching that our obligation to be a holy people includes not only proper treatment of sacrifices and acts of worship, but interpersonal ethics and justice. Here, the message is similar: care for the poor is holy.

Rashi comments on the verse quoted above, quoting Sifra:

Rabbi Avdimi said in the name of Rabbi Yosef: Why did the scripture see fit to teach in the middle of the holidays; Pesach and Shavuot on one side, and Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot on the other side of it? To teach us that anyone who properly gives gleanings, forgotten crops, and pe’ah to the poor, it is as if that person built the Temple and offered sacrifices in it.

In the middle of this parashah, which deals almost exclusively with mitzvot bein adam lemakom (commandments to serve God) such as a priest’s prohibition from burying anyone but immediate family relations, or counting the omer, or not to eat notar (sacrificial meat left overnight), the quintessential commandment to act ethically, to leave behind food for the poor, is taught.

Not only that, but the language in Sifra, which Rashi quotes in praise of one who leaves pe’ah, holds up the Temple and its rituals as the highest form of serving God. While the importance of tzedakkah is stressed here, the ideal nature of the Jewish life seems to be Temple-based.

Avoiding ritual defilement (tum’ah) is central to the priests’ work, as coming into contact with sanctified objects or foods while tamei is strongly forbidden. It makes sense, then that the priests would have to be far more cautious than the average Israelite to avoid tum’ah, as their work in the Temple and their daily meals involve hekdesh, or sanctified things. How, then, can the lay Israelite practice self-sanctification through avoiding tum’ah? The Torah often frames kashrut in this way. We avoid defilement by not eating the meat of forbidden animals, or animals that died by any means besides kosher slaughter.

It is highly significant, then, that when the Torah gives us a list of the Shalosh Regalim, the three pilgrimage holidays in Exodus 23:15-19, the law given there not related to the holidays is a law of the kosher diet. But which one? It is the law against mixing milk and dairy: Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

Out of all the laws of kashrut, this is the one whose purpose is most debated and wondered about. The three prevalent opinions are that it is either reflective of the idolatrous practices of the surrounding nations, that it is simply God’s mysterious command, or that it is inhumane to boil a kid in the milk that sustained it while alive.

That last reason, its inhumanity, brings us back to the message of the law of pe’ah given in this week’s list of the holidays: to be holy is to be humane. To serve the Creator of the world is to care for the lives of those created. As we feast during the holidays, we do so in acknowledgement of the Eternal. As we look to what we ourselves eat, we ensure that others are able to eat.

Shabbat Shalom!

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