On Wednesday, our school participated in Federation CJA’s Feed the Truck. All week, the children brought in bags of non-perishable kosher food items for the community’s food banks. This concrete, tangible activity opens the door for important conversations on kindness and generosity, helping others and feeling grateful for what we have and others may not. Designated plastic bags and a collection bin in each classroom help cultivate these sometimes abstract values and establish meaning for even our smallest students as they proudly add their bags of cereal and pasta to the growing pile.
On Wednesday, we added the value of community to the individual responsibility of donating food. The entire student body lined up through our staircases from the top of the building to the lobby and passed all the bags through the school in a human chain of cooperation and compassion. With music playing and our shinshinim putting themselves into the lines of children, Akiva School worked together in a festive atmosphere where doing good felt good, and was a lot of fun too.
This week’s parashah – Ki Tetze – offers two interesting thoughts on kindness and charity to the poor.
The text tells us:
If a bird’s nest happens to be before you on a road, on any tree or on the ground – young birds or eggs – and the mother is roosting on the young birds or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother on the young. You shall surely send away the mother and take the young for yourself, so that it will be good for you and you will prolong your days.
The Ramban explains that this commandment is not given because of God’s pity for the animals or because of consideration for the animal’s feelings. If this had been God’s motivation, he would have forbidden the Israelites from slaughtering and consuming animals completely. This commandment is not about the mother bird and her babies.
We are commanded to move the mother from the nest before we take the eggs or her baby birds in order to teach us compassion, empathy and the avoidance of cruelty, and to inspire and encourage our humanity.
How do we know this commandment is about us and not the animals? The verse tells us – so that it will be good for you and prolong your days. We can only profit by doing the right thing, by taking time to think about how our actions affect others – even animals – and by consistently acting with kindness and humility in all our actions.
Further on in the parashah, the Israelites are commanded:
When you reap your harvest in your field, and you forget a bundle in the field, you shall not go back to take it in; it shall be for the convert, the orphan and the widow, so that the Lord your God will bless you in all your handiwork.
Similar to the previous text cited, the reason for this commandment is not as clear as it seems. The Israelites are commanded not to return to the field to gather any forgotten harvest so that this small quantity of produce would remain for the weaker members of society to partake.
Is helping the poor really dependent on our forgetfulness? Where is the element of intent and motivation? In fact, this commandment cannot be fulfilled by someone who consciously wishes to do so. How can we be commanded to do something inadvertently?
The Sefer Ha-Hinukh – an anonymous 13th-century Spanish work discussing each of the 613 commandments – teaches that “action molds character.” The author explains that an individual who makes sure to gather every last sheaf, who sees a field full of produce and strives to hoard all of it for himself, thinking “this is mine, all mine” – his actions manifest a character of selfishness and hubris and insolence.
In contrast, leaving a portion of the field for all who are needy to take and enjoy fosters generosity and kindness and humility. This individual recognizes that his field and its produce do not belong to him. They were left to him from God. Just as the poor receives a gift from his field, the land-owner himself has received a gift from God and his duty is to share the blessings.
Like the commandment with the mother bird was not really about the bird, this ordinance is less about providing for the poor and more about instructing the wealthy how to think of all they own, encouraging an awareness of those who may be watching the field from the outside and wishing they could partake from its bounty and showing gratitude for their fortune and blessings by sharing.
It’s not about what you share, but how your character grows when you do.
When we fill the bags for Feed the Truck, do we put in our favorite foods to share or the items we do not like, hoping our parents won’t buy and serve them again? Both are forms of giving and the poor and needy will benefit from whatever fills the food banks.
But our characters may grow differently from the choices we make on how to give and what to share and when we show kindness.
Feed the Truck provides sustenance for the needy. It also supports many thought-provoking discussions on important values and character building.