Parshat Emor: The Problem with Secular Humanism

Rabbi Bernie Fox

And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying.  Speak to Bnai Yisrael and say to them:  The sacred occasions of Hashem that you should declare as occasions of sacred assembly – these are my sacred occasions. (Sefer VaYikra 23:1-2)

And when you harvest the produce of your field do not completely harvest the corner of your field in the course of your harvest.  And the gleanings of your harvest you should not collect.  Leave them to the poor and to the sojourner.  I am Hashem your Lord.  (Sefer VaYikra 23:22)

1. Festivals are associated with care for the needy

The first quotation above introduces Parshat Emor’s discussion of the annual festivals.  The discussion begins by mentioning Shabbat and then enumerates each of the festivals observed during the cycle of the calendar.  The description of the festivals opens with discussion of Pesach.  In this context, the Torah describes the omer offering that is brought on Pesach.  This offering is brought from the first grain of the annual barley harvest.  The Torah also describes the grain sacrifice of the shetai ha’lechem – the two loaves – that are offered on Shavuot.  

The second above quotation is inserted into the midst of the description of the festivals.  It is placed immediately after the description of the shetai ha’lechem.  It reviews two commandments regarding the harvest.  The first of these commandments is pe’ah.  This commandment requires that when a field is harvested a corner portion be left for the poor and needy.  The field’s owner leaves the grain in this corner standing.  Those in need come to the field and harvest for themselves the standing grain.  The second commandment is leket.  This commandment requires that when the field is harvested, the gleanings – insignificant numbers of ears that fall to the ground – be left for the poor and needy.

After describing these two commandments, the Torah resumes its description of the annual festivals.  This presentation raises an obvious question.  Why are the mitzvot of pe’ah and leket inserted into the Torah’s enumeration of the annual festivals?

Rashi offers a very interesting response.  Quoting the midrash, he explains that one who observes the commandments of pe’ah and leket is comparable to one who builds the sacred temple and offers upon its alter his sacrifices.  Rashi’s response seems contrived.  How is the observance of these two specific commandments comparable to building the temple and offering one’s sacrifices?

2. Serving Hashem in our treatment of human beings

Possibly, it is not Rashi’s intent to single out these commandments.  Instead, he may intend to communicate a basic tenet of the Torah.  Our treatment for our fellow human being is as important to Hashem as the sacrifices that we offer to Him.  We serve Hashem through both our devotion to Him and through our observance of the commandments that regulate our interactions with our fellow human beings.  We cannot fulfill our duty to Hashem by offering Him our sacrifices and prayers while ignoring the plight of our fellow human beings who need our compassion.  According to this interpretation of Rashi’s comments, the Torah inserts pe’ah and leket into its discussion of the festivals in order to demonstrate the unity of these commandments with our service to Hashem during the festivals.  These commandments that regulate our treatment of other human beings are as fundamental to our relationship with Hashem as our observance of His festivals.  However, perhaps Rashi is suggesting a more specific relationship between these two commandments and the festivals. 

3. Recognizing that the harvest comes from Hashem

Before returning to Rashi, let us consider a comment of Gershonides.  Gershonides suggests that there is a more specific relationship between these commandments and the festivals.  Three of the festivals described in this portion are related to the harvest.  Pesach and Shavuot coincide with the harvest.  The omer sacrifice of Pesach and the shetai ha’lechem of Shavuot are thanksgiving offerings.  Succot coincides with the completion of the collection of the grain from the field and its storage for the winter.  All three thanksgiving festivals acknowledge Hashem for granting us the bounty that has been harvested and stored away.  Through their observance, we thank Him for sustaining us.  

Gershonides suggests that the process of thanksgiving is fundamentally an acknowledgment that everything that we have comes from Him.  We recognize the very limited control we have over the factors that produce the harvest.  Hashem provides the rain.  He determines whether the grain will grow to maturity and be harvested or whether the grain will be destroyed by frost, attacked by disease, or consumed in some infestation.  These and many other factors determine the success of the harvest.  They are in His hands.  We are virtually powerless.  

According to Gershonides, this acknowledgment is communicated through our observance of the harvest festivals – Pesach, Shavuot, and Succot.  It is also expressed through our observance of the mitzvot of pe’ah and leket.  We recognize that Hashem has provided us with the bounty we have harvested and He commands that we share our blessings with those who are less fortunate that ourselves.

4. Similarities between Torah and secular humanism

In other words, Hashem is directing us to have compassion for those who are in need.  He is commanding us to adopt humanitarian value and practices.  This raises an interesting question.  Virtually every enlightened society acknowledges the importance of humanitarian values.  Humanitarianism is practiced by religious individuals and by devoted secularists.  It seems clear that humanitarianism is a product of enlightenment and civilization and is not dependent upon acceptance of religious doctrine.  Even an atheist will embrace the enlightened value of humanitarianism.  

In view of this universal character of humanitarianism, why does the Torah find it necessary to tie its presentation of humanitarian values to our service of Hashem?  The Torah admonishes us to care for the needy and poor in the context of our service to Hashem and in acknowledgment of His sovereignty.  Does this connection between humanitarianism and devotion to Hashem shape or impact our implementation and application of humanitarian values?

One who curses Hashem shall surely die.  The entire congregation shall stone him.  Whether a sojourner or citizen, if he curses Hashem, he shall die.  A person who strikes dead another human being shall surely die.  (Sefer VaYikra 24:16-17)

5. The relationship between murder and cursing Hashem

The two passages above describe two capital crimes.  The first crime is cursing Hashem.  The Torah explains that one who does this is put to death.  The second crime is violently taking the life of another.  This crime is also punished with death.  It is interesting that these two crimes are juxtaposed.  What is the Torah’s message in describing these two crimes and their punishments in adjacent passages?

One who spills the blood of a human being before witnesses, his blood should be spilled – for in the image of Hashem He made the human being.  (Sefer Beresheit 9:6)

The above passage is part of the message that Hashem communicated to Noach when he left the ark and reentered the post-Deluge world.  Hashem commanded Noach and his descendents that they may not take the life of another human being.  One who violates this commandment is to be punished with death.  Hashem explains to Noach that every human being reflects the Creator.  This is because every human being, in some manner, is created in His image.  Taking the life of human being is sacrilege.    

Based on this passage, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt’l explains the strange juxtaposition noted above.  The crime of cursing Hashem is punished by death.  The crime of murder is punished by death.  These two sins and their punishments are described in adjacent passages.  This is because the sins are actually similar.  We must honor and revere Hahsem.  One who curses Him is severely punished.  This same obligation to honor Hashem requires that we respect human life.  Every human being reflects Hashem.  Every human being is created in his Creator’s image.  The murder of a human being is a desecration of the sanctity of Hashem.

6. The sanctity of human life and Torah humanitarianism

Let us now return to Rashi’s comments.  Rashi explained that one who observes the commandments of pe’ah and leket is comparable to one who builds the sacred temple and offers on its alter his sacrifices.  Rav Soloveitchik’s insight suggests an alternative interpretation of Rashi’s comments.  Every human being is formed in the image of Hashem.  When we reach out to the poor and needy we are not responding simply to our innate compassion.  We are recognizing and acknowledging the divine in every single human being.  We are recognizing that an individual blessed with wealth and his neighbor who is desperately struggling in the depths of poverty are created in the same sacred image.  Both are sacred.  The poor person needs our compassion.  His divine image demands our respect and honor.

When we perform the commandments of pe’ah and leket we respond to the divine image that exists in every human being.  We are honoring Hashem.  In this sense, the performance of these commandments is comparable to the building of a temple to Hashem and offering our sacrifices upon its alter.  

7. The limitations of secular humanism

This then is the ultimate foundation of the Torah’s humanitarian values and practices.  How does it impact our practices and how do the Torah’s humanitarian practices differ from the practices of the secular humanist?

Secular humanism promotes compassion for those who are persecuted, or in desperate need.  It has not succeeded in establishing accepted standards for how we should treat every single human being.  It does not compel us to visit a mourner.  It does not demand that we treat others honestly and earnestly.  It does demand that we show respect for every human being.  Certainly, it does not suggest moderation in our treatment of our enemies.  

The Torah’s humanitarianism recognizes that every human being is endowed with sacred dignity.  His sacredness demands our respect.  Even one who is not a friend – even an enemy – retains his divine image.  He must be respected and his sacred dignity must be honored.