The incidental Palestinian

This week’s Torah portion, Emor (Lev. 21:1–24:23), includes instructions about the mo‘adim or times of meeting between Israel and the Lord.

The word mo‘adim first appears in Genesis 1:14: “Then God said, ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons [mo‘adim].’” The Lord ordained the holy times from the beginning to remind all the generations to come of the original wholeness of the creation and God’s promise to renew it. Thus, Shabbat opens the list of mo‘adim in Leviticus 23, because it is a memorial of creation (Exod. 31:17), which anticipates “the time to come . . . the day that will be all Shabbat and rest for everlasting life” (b.Tamid 33b), when the goodness of creation will be restored at last.

Every festival partakes of this prophetic quality of Shabbat. The instructions for Shavuot include, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 23:21–22).

Moses had already told the Israelites to leave the gleanings for the poor a few chapters earlier (Lev 19:9–10), so why does he repeat it here? Because Shavuot is the festival of the grain harvest, and for the harvest to be holy, it has to be conducted with regard for the poor and the stranger. The poor have a rightful share in the harvest, even though they don’t own any land of their own, because they too are created in God’s image. The Israelites might be tempted to think that the festival is all about pilgrimage and worship, a day to forget everything else and bring the offering to God—a day when those who don’t have anything to offer are incidental to the real action. But no, Shavuot anticipates the conditions of olam ha-ba, the age to come, when there won’t be any more hunger or poverty, and no one will be incidental.

This principle applies not only to the festivals, but throughout our lives. We’re to remember the outsider, the one we might consider incidental, especially at the joyous times when we’re most likely to forget about them, but also throughout our everyday lives as well.

The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai brings this principle to life:

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower. I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker.

“You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.”

“But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself: Redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.” (cited in Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide, by R. Lawrence Hoffman)

Perhaps Amichai overstates the case, as poets are entitled to do. The arch from the Roman period does have some importance, but he’s right to point out the living human being resting up from his heavy load. It’s wrong to make this man incidental. This is a principle deeply imbedded in Jewish ethical thinking, and especially in the example of Messiah himself, who spent so much of his time around the incidental people of his day, like sinners and tax collectors.

As I’ve been writing statements and blogs in support of Israel, I’ve been aware of how easy it is to make Palestinians incidental to the whole story. We can get so focused on the “Roman arch” of Israelas the fulfillment of biblical promises and as the legitimate Jewish state, that we forget all about the Palestinian guy sitting there with his heavy load. I know, the load is largely imposed by his own misguided leaders, and yes, Israelis have their own loads to bear too. But innocent Palestinians are suffering from the heavy security measures and endless complications of life in the West Bank. I’m not sure what do do with this yet, but real, biblically-inspired advocacy for Israel has to include concern for justice for all parties. “Zion shall be redeemed with justice . . .”  (Isa 1:27).

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