A well-known joke sums up every Jewish holiday with a three part formula: They tried to kill us, God saved us, let’s eat. It’s a narrative arc which is expressed quite explicitly in chapter 26, in the declaration made upon bringing the first fruits on the holiday of Shavuot. This same declaration later becomes the core of our Pesach reading at the seder, so that it figures prominently in 2/3 of the major Biblical festivals. Not bad. It’s just missing one critical element.
It’s true that the most appropriate way to express our gratitude to God for our salvation is by enjoying all the good given to us. But if only we have enjoyed it, we’ve missed the whole point. The section about the bringing of first fruits concludes “And you shall rejoice in all the good that God has given you and your family, you, the Levite, and the stranger in your midst.” The joy of the holidays is only properly expressed when it is shared with the less fortunate.
The Rambam codifies this idea in his laws of the holidays (Shevitat Yom Tov 6:18):
When he eats and drinks, he is obligated to feed the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, along with other poor and downtrodden people. But one who locks the doors of his courtyard, and eats with his children and wife, but doesn’t feed the poor and embittered- this is not the joy of mitzva, but gluttonous joy.
This isn’t the Torah’s formula for charity, it’s the formula for happiness. We define the abundance of our happiness by how we treat it. When we share it, it grows. When we hoard it, it constricts.
And this is also the formula for holiness. Following the presentation of the declaration of the first fruits, the Torah discusses another declaration, viduy maasrot, the ‘confession of tithes’. The parts of our produce deemed holy cannot be hoarded. Holiness finds its expression only in giving to ‘the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, the widow.’
And when we have acted properly towards what is holy in our midst, we can turn to God and ask that He, in return, turn to us from his holy abode. “We have done what you decreed upon us, now you must do what you promised us”.
this blog follows the 929 project, offering my reflections, in English, on the chapter of the day. Learn more about the project at 929.org.il