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The Harvest and the Law

Shavuot, the Jewish festival that begins next Thursday evening, June 5, is among the least known of the Jewish holidays in this country. That’s no accident. The central theme of the holiday, the giving of the Law at Sinai, sits uneasily with an American Jewish public that likes to think of religion as a matter of personal choice, not revealed law. For many of us, America’s gift to the Jews is liberation from petty rules.

This week is a good time to turn things around and consider Judaism’s message to America. Those petty rules are meant as a model, not simply for personal diet or sexual behavior but for the conduct of a decent society. That’s the real meaning of religious law.

Those who find their way to synagogue for the holiday next Friday will get a perfect example, perfectly timed. They’ll hear the biblical tale of Ruth, the Moabite gentile woman who casts her lot in with the Jewish people. If you go, listen for the legal injunction that lies at the heart of the story: the part where Ruth goes to a rich man’s field to glean the wheat sheaves left lying there for the poor to gather by right. Yes, by right.

The custom is based on the rule in Leviticus, chapter 19, requiring farmers to leave the corners of the field and the fallen sheaves “for the poor and for the stranger.” Not as a voluntary act of charity, but as an entitlement.

Judaism teaches that society is required to take part of the wage-earner’s wages and the investor’s profits to feed the poor. Not the deserving poor. All the poor.

On a week when President Bush prepares to sign into law a massive tax cut that will reduce the burden on the wealthy — in order to “give you back your money,” as the president likes to say — Shavuot reminds us that the money isn’t necessarily ours. There’s nothing immoral or unfair about taxing the wealthy to feed the poor, promote the general welfare and conduct the business of society in a dignified fashion. On the contrary, it is the beginning of decency.

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