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Etz Chayim – the ‘Tree of Life’ – is the Hebrew name of Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue.
When you reap the harvest of your field and overlook a sheaf..do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow – in order that the Eternal One your God may bless you in all your undertakings (Deut 24:19).”
The case of the forgotten sheaf seems to us a rather bizarre commandment. It is contained within a host of miscellaneous domestic and civil laws, between 72 and 74 in total depending on which commentator you read. It is bizarre because it stands out as it is the only one that one would not consciously do by ones own freewill. It is a mitzvah, a commandment, of forgetting.
Strangely, this mitzvah excites me!
Why is it that this mitzvah is important enough to be one that in times of persecution, was identified as one of the divine commandments to be instructed to the proselyte who immediately accepts the burden of being a Jew (bYev 47 a-b). The produce that it represents would surely not be sufficient to sustain its poor recipients. Nor would it be ethical to leave their chances of survival to a mere accident of forgetfulness.
As some of you know, I often find spiritual inspiration in my garden and pondering this mitzvah was no exception. At this time of year, the fruit trees that we have in our gardens are heavy with their offerings. I was pondering the apples that had fallen from our tree and considering those which, in a sense, I had forgotten. I had not got to them before they were ready to fall. I had forgotten to each day check which ones were ready to be picked. Already, those that had fallen were in turn giving life. They were full of various insects and grubs that were greedily consuming the insides of the life-giving fruit. At the same time, the surrounding trees were full of the expectant song of the birds that were heralding a banquet on the fattened beings below. One could hear them singing to their young of joys and health that would see them through the winter to come. On a tree at the back of the Synagogue, plums are ripening and offering up their juicy, sweetness. There are those already on the floor that offer life to the wildlife that lives around us. To go back and to try to cut out the still untouched half of the apple in my garden or the split plums at the back of the Synagogue would be to forgo the mitzvah that holds within it joy. A tangible understanding of the effect of my forgetfulness that is expressed more eloquently by a aggadic midrash, a rabbinic moral tale.
“A story is told of a pious man who forgot a sheaf in his field. He said to his son: Go offer for me a bull for a burnt-offering and a bull for a peace-offering. The son answered: Father! What makes you rejoice in this precept more that all others in the Torah? He responded: The Omnipresent has given all other precepts in the Torah to be observed consciously. But this one is to be unconsciously observed. Were we to observe this one of our own deliberate freewill before the Omnipresent, we would have no opportunity of observing it. But we are told: “When you reap the harvest and have forgotten a sheaf in the field…” The text ordained for it a blessing. Have we not an a fortiori argument? If when one has no deliberate intention of performing a good deed it is nevertheless reckoned to them as one. For the one who deliberately performs a good deed, how much more blessing will be bestowed! (Tosefta, Peah 3:8)”
According to this midrash, this mitzvah is intended to serve as a reminder to the person of means. When we were slaves in Egypt, we were dependent on that which was leftover. Would we have survived (Sforno)? Would the charity project that we supported through our last HHD Appeal, Table to Table, have been able to feed thousands of poverty stricken, Jews, Arabs and refugees if the restaurants and supermarkets have thrown food out at the end of the day, the produce forgotten, not even considered by those who had exited the doors?
There is much concern for the waste that humankind, especially that in the developed world now produces. It is the forgotten. This is the produce that is acharekha, left behind us as our torah portion terms it.
The true blessing that results from this unusual mitzvah, is the awareness that if our forgetting that which is acharekha, behind us, leads to good, how much better it would be to consciously define that which we could comfortably leave behind, or do without. When we consider this year’s HHD Appeal; when we think of what produce we will bring to the Synagogue to furnish our Sukkah Table to be redistributed to our members and those in our wider community of Hillingdon and Watford; when we consider the extent of our charitable giving over the rest of the year, let us not think of the marginal cost to ourselves. For in truth, a good portion of this marginal cost will lead us to cause waste, that garment that is never detached from its purchasing label; the extra electrical good to be used only once in the year when we occasionally remember why we bought it for some clever expediency; or the luxury food-stuff that causes other regular produce to go in the bin. Rather, let us acknowledge that through our generous giving, the blessing that we bring to our world is far greater when focussed on others.
Eternal God, when we consider the works of Your hand, what are we that you are mindful of us? Eternal God, grant us the wisdom to set aside a moment to consider this and when we forget something, grant us the good humour and nature to rejoice in its blessing.
© Copyright 2008 NPLS