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Torah Beloved – The Little Things

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s Torah Beloved: Reflections on the Love of Torah and the Celebration of the Holiday of Matan Torah, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishers 

The Little Things*

In the Book of Vayikra, in the passage where the Torah first mentions the major festivals of the year, we find the intrusion of a seemingly irrelevant verse, one which seems out of context in this list of great holidays. Our Rabbis already wondered at the fact that after the mention of Pesach and Shavuot, and before the mention of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, the Torah introduces an extraneous verse, one which seems to have nothing whatever to do with the moadim, or holidays. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not remove completely the corners of your field as you reap, and you shall not gather the gleanings of your harvest; for the poor and the proselyte shall you leave them; I am Hashem, your God” (Leviticus 23:22).

When reaping the harvest, you may not reap the whole field, but must leave a “pe’a,” a corner of the field unreaped; and the “leket,” the gleanings of the harvest, the ears of corn which fell to the ground were to be left there. This leket and pe’a, the gleanings and the corner, were to be left for the poor man and the stranger, for the needy and the alien who have not their own fields.

Our Sages (Rashi on Leviticus 23:22 quotes Torat Kohanim 23:175), contemplating the mention of pe’a and leket in the context of the holidays, ask: Why did the Torah see fit to mention leket and pe’a in the middle of the portion of the moadim, with Pesach and Shavuot on one side, and Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur on the other?

Many answers have been offered to this question posed by the Rabbis. All of them are worthy of deep study. This morning, however, I invite you to consider what I believe is the intention of the Torah in this juxtaposition of the mitzvot of tzedaka (for leket and pe’a are really forms of tzedaka or charity-giving) and the festivals.

We live in an age which has an unusual flare for the dramatic and the spectacular. Our interests are directed almost solely to headlines and lead articles. The big things in life, the flashy glamors, they attract us, while the prosaic, everyday matters are regarded as too dull to merit our consideration. In an age of space travel, only that which goes farthest fastest is deemed worth discussing, and yesterday’s missile is passé. As one wit in the Pentagon is supposed to have informed his subordinates concerning rockets, “If it works, it’s obsolete!”

In this kind of world, only a daring rescue becomes a virtue, while a kind helping hand is worthless. Only a dramatic act of courage is worth emulating, not an unspectacular deed of generosity. And at the same time, only the violent acts of murder or pillage must be avoided, not the small sins which attract no public comment. In this kind of culture, we read the best sellers, but neglect the classic literature which does not strike us as sensational. We devour every new report about the mysterious Dead Sea Scrolls, even though some of us have yet to read through the far older and more important Bible for the first time. We have, in other words, decided to live on the peaks of life, and have neglected the fertile plains below.

And nowhere is this attitude more pernicious and more dangerous than when it comes to religion and religious observance. For here too are we inclined to bring our worship of the big and dramatic and spectacular. Here too we may emphasize the great acts and cavalierly dismiss the trivial, to stress the glorious breakthroughs of the spirit and demean the constant, slow struggle of the human heart and mind and soul to rise upwards. Thus do we American Jews tend to concentrate on the so-called High Holidays and overlook the less dramatic Shavuot – we call it a “minor” holiday – and certainly Shabbat. We hear of adult courses on “Customs and Ceremonies” which deal with the great turning points of life of birth and marriage and death, and which leave all in between forgotten and neglected. We begin to think that Judaism consists of bris and ḥuppa and shiva, but that we may ignore such details as tefilin and talmud Torah and taharat hamishpaḥa, which are marked by quiet dignity and unobtrusive modesty. And it is to forewarn us against this concentration upon the big issues to the exclusion of the seemingly trivial that the Torah inserts the mention of leket and pe’a in between the great festivals of Judaism. Remember, the Torah tells us, that no matter how important the big holidays are, they are meaningless unless the Jew pays attention to the daily requirements as well, the simple things as leket and pe’a. Yes, the themes of the moadim are world-shaking – revelation on Shavuot, redemption on Passover, judgment on Rosh Hashana, repentance on Yom Kippur. Yet all of these lofty themes are for naught if the poor man remains outside, cold and hungry and forlorn, because you choose to neglect the prosaic and plain and paltry and petty mitzva of leket and pe’a. The great things are great indeed, the Torah means to tell us, but a man stands and falls on the small things. What determines the success or failure of the spiritual life of the Jew are not his grasp of the great theological concepts or even his participation in the synagogue
festival service on High Holidays, but his everyday leket and pe’a, his daily Jewishness; not his rare splurge of kindliness as much as his constancy in tzedaka; not by his conduct in great public events, as much as by his tefilin and tefila, even in the privacy of his parlor, by his consideration for wife and children and neighbors, by his kashrut and his study of the Torah. In a word, the Torah counsels us to beware of the spectacular only and to concentrate as well on the substantial.

And oh, how history has proven the importance of the little things, the leket and pe’a amidst the moadim. The generation of Noah was destroyed by the flood because, tradition teaches, of gezel paḥot mishaveh peruta, petty pilfering! The whole Egyptian exile began because of a mere two sela’im worth of silk which Jacob gave his favorite Joseph more of than his brothers, thus incurring their jealousy. The founder of Christianity began with a tiny sin – rejecting netilat yadayim. Reform started its career of truncating our tefila by eliminating only the Yekum Purkan.

Today we read from the Torah the aseret hadibrot, the Ten Commandments. There was a time, when the Temple was on Zion’s heights, that they were recited daily as part of the service.Why do we not recite them thus today during our regular daily services? The Talmud answers that the Sages revoked this requirement, and actually forbade it because of tar’omet haminim, because of the heretics. They, the heretics, probably the early Christians, said they were going to observe only the big things, only the Ten Commandments, but that the rest was unimportant. Have you not heard that in our own day? “I’m religious enough; I observe the Ten Commandments.” Aside from the fact that Shabbat is one of the Ten Commandments, and usually not observed by people who are satisfied with only ten of the 613 commandments, this is a typically Christian attitude. It plays up the big and dismisses the trivial. Murder, adultery, stealing are acknowledged as evils. But what of the minor sins; what of this willful ignorance of Judaism? What of this unJewish diet and vocabulary and whole pattern of unJewish living? So what our Rabbis told us about the Ten Commandments that we read on Shavuot – that better not to read them at all if that is going to be all of our religion, that better no Ten Commandments if we are going to neglect less dramatic mitzvot, that’s just what the Torah meant when after Shavuot in the list of moadim it mentioned in the unglorious but extremely vital mitzvot of leket and pe’a. The Yiddish writer Peretz put it in his own way: no man ever stubs his toe against a mountain. It’s the little things that bring a man down. So it is with us, friends. None of us will ever commit murder. But someone may casually wound the pride of a friend by a word of lashon hara. No one here will ever bow to an idol. But someone may deny a smile to a neighbor who is starved for friendship. No one here is going to rob a bank. But someone may neglect to provide the leket and pe’a for a needy family. And it is these unspectacular little things, rather than the giant themes of the moadim or Ten Commandments, which ultimately decide our fate. That is why such seeming trifles are of such concern to the halakha – for trifles make perfection – and perfection is no trifle.

*May 25, 1958