The Torah presents an idealized world in Eretz Yisrael. It describes an agricultural society with certain egalitarian features and a strong ethic of taking care of each other. Everyone has an inherited plot of land, sufficient to support a family. The Israelites are even told by G-d to trust that there will be enough food left over for both the sabbatical and jubilee years–in which no food is planted or harvested.1 G-d insists that if society works together there will be a surplus to support all in the community.
Even in this world of plenty, a concept of poverty is understood. The text tells us to protect the stranger in our midst, the orphan, and the widow.2 These terms should not merely be taken literally. A broader view is called for. The text indicates the most vulnerable in our society—those who lack of family or social connection. We must protect those among us who might starve or otherwise fall through the cracks. The Torah commands an individual and communal responsibility to take care of others. A surplus is expected, and it is to be given directly to the vulnerable—פאה, the corners of the fields3 and לקט, gleanings.4
Today we live in a different kind of society, with different model of production. Whereas in biblical times, the profit centers were farms and land, today they are factories and financial instruments. A person living in the land of the Torah would have easy access to the corners of the fields of his neighbors. Today, the “corners” no longer exist in anything but an abstract way. The following is (i) an attempt to derive corollaries of פאה and לקט for today and (ii) to suggest that government programs and taxation are the best vehicles to effectuate the ideals of פאה and לקט.
Who should פאה and לקט protect? The text tells us to protect the stranger in our midst, the orphan, and the widow.5 These terms are not meant literally. Rather, they are indicative of the most vulnerable in our society—those who lack of family or social connection. The clear message is that of an ethical society. We are commanded to protect those among us who are at risk of abuse, neglect, starvation or otherwise falling through the cracks.
A further important feature of פאה and לקט is that they do not attempt to define who is “needy” enough to take from the corners or glean from what is left behind. Rather, the surplus is made available to any who feel they need it. The Torah conceives of a society in which people work hard to plant and cultivate their fields, but in the end, a part of the harvest belongs not to the individuals, but to G-d and to society. פאה and לקט are a surplus shared with all—whoever may come and take.
At a minimum, this includes institutions which provide life-saving sustenance for the most vulnerable in society: food banks, shelters and hospitals. Further required are programs that provide opportunity to everyone regardless of social or economic status: public schools and universities, jobs programs. Finally, to benefit everyone, some part should also extend to cultural enrichment: museums and support of the arts.
How is gleaning done?
First, modern realities mean that פאה and לקט—the metaphorical “corners of the fields”—are inaccessible. In farms, which are closest to the biblical case, the food is produced in large agricultural fields far from population centers. It is quite impossible for the needy today to take any kind of gleanings from these fields it is not permitted and farms are closed to the public. In the United States, for example, much agriculture is done on “factory farms”—vast complexes of land administered by multi-billion dollar agribusiness conglomerates for enormous profit. Further, the majority of the impoverished are in major urban centers quite distant from the farms, making access impossible even if it were permitted.
Second, much of the modern corners are abstract. What would it mean to leave a corner or gleaning on a $750 million credit default swap? Even if the financial institutions and corporate parties were willing to leave corners for the vulnerable, how do we measure it?
What constitutes the corners of today’s economy? Both פאה and לקט represent excess wealth in the Torah. They are that over and above which, the owner does not need to take care of himself, his family, to live in comfort. They are that amount which, looking at his own lot and that of a starving neighbor, a widow, and orphan, he could not in good conscience harvest to sell at market.
Modern society makes it impossible for פאה and לקט to occur organically. Thus, some agent to enact the ideals is required. Only one kind of agent could both collect and remit the פאה and לקט in an appropriate way on a large scale—and that agent is government. Collection is simply taxation. Remittance is the creation of and maintenance of the life-saving, opportunity-providing and culturally enriching programs that benefit the entire society. Government is the only entity with the reach and legitimacy to do these things effectively. Government is positioned to represent the best impulses of society, to protect our vulnerable, to ensure basic equity.
As voters—of any country—we must work to influence government to prioritize spending to alleviate poverty and provide opportunity for the most vulnerable in our society.6 The majority of tax money the government collects should be applied to programs in the interest of the most vulnerable members of society. The conception of social justice enshrined in פאה and לקט demands it.
A version of this post originally appeared on PostModox
1 See Leviticus 25:1-13. This passage sets up a sabbatical year of rest every 7th year, during which no agricultural activity is permitted, and a jubilee year every 50th year, which constitutes a second consecutive year of rest following the 49th sabbatical year of the cycle. Additionally, n the jubilee year, any ancestral land which was sold is returned to its original owner or his heirs, effectively preventing permanent dispossession of land. See also Leviticus 26:34-35, admonishing that the Israelites will be removed from the land to make up for sabbaticals they do not observe. “The land will be appeased for its sabbaticals during all the years of its desolation, while you are in the land of your foes; then the land will rest and it will appease for its sabbaticals. All the years of its desolation will it rest, whatever it did not rest during the sabbaticals when you dwelled upon her.” (All translations from the ArtScroll Stone Edition Tanach).
2 See, e.g.,Deuteronomy 24:19, “When you reap your harvest in your field and you forget a bundle in the field, you shall not turn back to take it; it shall be for the proselyte, the orphan, and the widow, so that Hashem, your God, will bless you in all your handiwork.”
3 See Leviticus 19:9, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not complete your reaping to the corner (פאה) of your field, and the gleanings (לקט) of your harvest you shall not take.”
4 See Id. See also Deuteronomy 24:19. The Book of Ruth also speaks of לקט and illustrates how the impoverished of a community would use gleaning to support themselves.
5 See, e.g.,Deuteronomy 24:19, “When you reap your harvest in your field and you forget a bundle in the field, you shall not turn back to take it; it shall be for the proselyte, the orphan, and the widow, so that Hashem, your God, will bless you in all your handiwork.”
6 Especially when considered side-by-side with, for example defense. While common defense is a fundamental, crucial role of the government, it doesn’t have the a biblical basis in פאת and לקט.