Making Holidays Special by Motivating Compassion

Why is there a rule to leave the corners of the field – peah, and the gleanings – leket amidst the detailed rules for celebrating Shabbat and festivals? They are relevant commandments for right now that allow hungry kids and families to thrive.

What makes a holiday special?

In this morning’s portion, there is a long description of the holiday calendar. The list in Leviticus emphasizes the special offerings of each holiday. And then buried amidst the holiday details we find a verse seemingly unrelated to holidays that may hold the key to what makes holidays special. Leviticus 23:22:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I, the Lord, am your God.

Why is there a rule to leave the corners of the field – peah, and the gleanings – leket amidst the detailed rules for celebrating Shabbat and festivals? The comment at the bottom of the page in the Etz Chayim brings the comment of the Sifra – a midrash teaching that when one shares one’s bounty with the poor, it is as if it were offered on God’s altar.

Holidays are made special when we offer thanks to God, by caring for those in need. Maybe this commandment to care for the poor is embedded in the holiday list, because at holidays we focus on immediate family, community, joy – and we need to remember others as well. I know I’m busy planning for the holiday of Shavuot that will be in 3 weeks. Shavuot is both a harvest holiday and a holiday where we re-enact receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. You study all night – which is fun! You eat dairy treats – like cheesecake and ice cream – which is very fun. But we get so wrapped up in the holiday celebration, we need a reminder – care for those in need, give food to the hungry.

The statistics regarding hunger in this area are sobering. Check out the 2nd Harvest Food Bank website and you’ll discover that they provided services for over 250,000 people this past month! 1 out of every 10 people in San Mateo and Santa Clara county have used 2nd Harvest’s services. Over 1,000,000 pounds of food are distributed each week. Did you know that 1 in 3 kids in Silicon Valley is at risk of hunger? We often don’t see it but it is there. One local teacher noticed that on Fridays kids were going through the garbage looking for leftovers, because they knew that on the weekends they would not get school meals.

The mitzvah embedded in the holiday list reminds us to remember the hungry and those living in poverty. Even if you don’t come and study into the night – take the lesson of the need to care for the hungry and observe that aspect of the holiday this year.

We have an incredible local food bank – 2nd Harvest. Just 50 cents can provide a nutritious meal to a child in need. This month’s Stand Up for Kids campaign has a group of philanthropists who are matching $2 for every dollar donated. Peah – leaving the corners of the field, and leket – leaving the gleanings are not quaint laws from ancient times –are relevant commandments for right now that allow hungry kids and families to thrive.

Now look a little closer at the verse – you are commanded to leave it for the poor. What is the implication of this law? It seems that the owner of the field does not gather it and give it to the poor. Rather the poor come into the field to gather the food themselves. The commentator Rashi teaches: “Leave it for them to pick up themselves; don’t assist them in gathering.” Why?

Maybe it creates connection – when I welcome you into my field, I see you, I trust you – you become a full human.

Maybe it is to create a sense of pride in allowing people to provide for themselves through their own efforts. When you are providing for yourself, you feel a sense of dignity and self-worth.

Maybe it equalizes the giver and the recipient. The land is God’s and the poor have every right to a piece of the land.

Maybe it is about giving you the skills to know how to work the land.

There is an extraordinary institution in Israel that we have forged a beautiful relationship with already that will continue to grow in upcoming months, that lives the values of teaching others how to use precious resources for food.

It is called AICAT – the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training, and is in the Arava desert – one of the most desolate and sparsely populated places in Israel. The 10-month program teaches agricultural techniques to students from Asia and Africa, providing the skills necessary to succeed and prosper in agriculture utilizing the cutting edge technology and methods being developed in Israel.

Part of the program is developing a project that they can use in their home country to help overcome poverty and hunger in their native villages.

Over the past 20 years, AICAT has hosted over 10,000 students from countries including Nepal, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Ethiopia, South Sudan, East Timor, Thailand and Indonesia.

We had the honor of meeting the AICAT director Hanni Arnon. Hanni talked about what the students learn when they come to AICAT: “They come at plantation time and grow with the plants. Here—where there are very harsh conditions, geographic isolation, extreme weather, arid soil and a shortage of water—they learn the importance of human capacity. If you want it, you can make a change. We teach that a difficulty is a challenge and you need to find a solution.”

Students learn to make a plan that includes everything necessary for success – research, drip irrigation, pest control, water management.

How did this program come about? In 1994, Israeli farming communities began hiring farmhands from Thailand. The newcomers were amazed to see a desert in bloom and started asking how the magic happens. The community in the Central Arava realized there was an opportunity to create a school and share their knowledge of high-tech farming practices. Aware that nearly 25 percent of the world’s population lives in poverty, the residents realized they have the know how to make a difference by bringing in students from under developed regions and teaching them. Hani comments: “We never imagined that we’d go on to become an international school with over 1,000 students per year.”

Each participant is assigned to an area farmer for the school year. The farmers become their mentors, their inspiration, their family away from home. Then they take all of their new knowledge to their home countries. Arnon explains: “They arrive as students but they go back as entrepreneurs. Farmers and farming lands are diminishing but the world’s population is growing. We need more farmers and entrepreneurial farmers especially.” AICAT helps with business plans and keeps in touch with its alumni.

The program includes sightseeing trips as well as field trips to see agri-tech companies and methods in action. The result is that AICAT creates a relationship with Israel as the students go back to countries that often did not have previous relationships with Israel. Might the breaking down of borders and the exposure to different cultures and points of view be a seed for peace in strife torn region? Word-of-mouth recommendations – as well as successes in international locales – have created more demand than AICAT can accommodate. We will help expand this program, living the value inherent in the law that we welcome those in need to come to our fields.

I began by asking what makes a holiday special. A holiday is special when it motivates compassion. So let’s prepare your heart for Shavuot by providing for the poor and hungry in our area by supporting 2nd Harvest. Let’s also help people in underdeveloped countries learn the skills to take with them to eliminate poverty in their own homes by supporting organizations like AICAT. Shabbat Shalom.

Information about 2nd Harvest taken from web-site, www.shfb.org. Information about AICAT taken from web-site Israel21c.org.