A Thought on Shavuot - The Obligations of Tzedek
(an earlier version of this appeared in the 5769 AJWS Chag v'Chesed).
The holiday of Shavuot is generally assumed to commemorate the giving of the Torah, which occurred on the sixth of Sivan. In the Torah, however, Shavuot is only described as an agricultural holiday and occurs not on any particular calendrical date, but at the culmination of seven weeks from the beginning of the harvest season that occurs on the second day of Pesach. Shavuot is chag hakatzir, the holiday of harvest, and is closely linked with Sukkot, chag ha’asif, the holiday of the ingathering of the crops. These are the two holidays on which the Torah commands us to be joyous—v’samachta lifnei Hashem¸ “and you shall be joyous before God” (Deuteronomy 16:11) and v’samachta bi’chagekha, “and you shall be joyous on your festivals” (Deuteronomy 16:14), respectively.
A year of agricultural bounty naturally evokes a sense of joy over one’s accomplishment, security and success. The Torah insists, however, that this joy not be focused merely on oneself, as this could lead to self-satisfaction and arrogance. Rather, the joy is to be directed to God (Deuteronomy 16:11), recognizing that it is only with God’s assistance that we have achieved this success.
However, thanksgiving to God is not the only, nor even the primary, theme of this Festival of the Harvest. As exemplified vividly in the book of Ruth, it was during this time of year that the entire Israelite nation, individually and collectively, provided for the poor who had no land of their own and no crops to harvest. In accordance with the Torah’s mitzvot, which appear immediately in the context of the holiday of Shavuot (Leviticus 23:22), landed farmers left an uncut corner of the field, together with whatever was dropped and forgotten during the harvest, for the poor to reap and glean for themselves.
These two themes—thanksgiving to God and support of the poor—are interconnected, and the Torah states so explicitly, “You shall rejoice before God … you, and the stranger and the orphan and the widow who are in your midst” (Deuteronomy 16:11). If we recognize our material success as coming from God, then we will understand that religious responsibilities attach to that wealth. Just as God is described as caring for the poor and orphan, just as God’s compassion extends to all of God’s creatures, so too, as beneficiaries of God’s beneficence, we must use our means to similarly care for those who are poor and downtrodden.
This framing emphasizes the Jewish value of chesed, the magnanimous act of helping others. There is, however, a more important theme at play here, and that is the value of tzedek, of doing what is just and right toward other members of society. In commanding us to leave the gleanings for the poor, the Torah concludes, “and you shall remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 16:12). As slaves, we learned what it meant to be strangers, to be marginalized and vulnerable people in society. As free people, we must create a society that is based on tzedek, on the equal protection of all of its members: “Like a citizen among you shall be the stranger who is dwelling among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). Now that we have been redeemed and have gone from slaves to free people, from strangers to citizens, we must make sure to not follow in the ways of our past oppressors. This is a basic responsibility of being a citizen: to take responsibility for all of the members of society, its citizens and its strangers, its strong and its weak.
As an expression of tzedek, this obligation relates to how we structure our society, and thus taking care of the poor has always been recognized as a communal responsibility. The Mishnah tractate of Peah is devoted to the agricultural gifts of Shavuot, and it is here that we are introduced to the rabbinic institution of the soup kitchen (tamchoi), for the town’s visiting poor and the charity box (kanon), for the town’s local poor. These rabbinic institutions were thus modeled after the communal, agricultural gifts of Shavuot, and, I believe, these communal gifts later served as a model for the Hebrew Free Loan Societies which began as local, communal institutions.
While as individuals we have largely excelled in acts of chesed and tzedek, there is work that still needs to be done to build and support communal institutions directed towards these goals, institutions in which everyone participates, everyone gives, and everyone in the community is cared for. We must strive to live up to the demands of tzedek to do everything in our power to ensure that all members of our various communities—religious, local and global—are protected, are given the dignity that they deserve and are empowered so that they can take their rightful place as full, participating members of our community.