Let the Edges Run Wild!

sulaw17673_2.jpgListen up all you suburbanites with your perfectly manicured lawns: it’s time to let the edges run wild!

In the week’s Torah portion Parashat Emor, we find this classic verse:

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of you field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 23:22)

This commandment is rooted in the Torah’s essential view that the land upon which we live does not ultimately belong to us. (Witness the famous opening line of Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds, the world and all its inhabitants.”) Certainly the environmental implications of this concept are undeniable – a compelling reminder that the the earth that we inhabit is not a simply resource for our unmitigated exploitation.

There are obvious socio-economic challenges presented by this value as well. We will soon read, in fact, in next week’s portion:

…the land must not be sold beyong reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. (Leviticus 25:23)

In his book, “The Edges of the Field: Lessons on the Obligations of Ownership,” Harvard law professor Joseph Singer argues that these Jewish economic values have much to teach us as contemporary Americans:

Contrary to to what some believe and others fear, the protection of property rights does not commit us to the view that gross inequality is a necessary fact of life or that individuals have no legitimate claim to lean on other people. Property is not merely an individual right, and it is not based solely on the notion of self-interest or self-reliance. It is, in fact, an intensely social institution. It implicates social relationships that combine individualism with a large amount of communal responsibility (p. 3).

It could be argued that this intricate balance between private ownership and communal responsibility is currently becoming subsumed by the conservative American ethos of “ownership society:” a cultural view that considers “personal liberty, responsibility and property” as primary and sacrosanct. In an ownership society, the sanctity of the unharvested edges has given way to an impermeable wall – where the rights of the owners are paramount and those on the other side simply left to fend for themselves.

The deeper spiritual vision presented to us by this week’s portion is one that respects edges and boundaries, but also recognizes that slavish devotion to these boundaries is ultimately dangerous and self-defeating. In essence, by leaving the edges “unharvested,” we mindfully blur the boundary between own holdings and the land beyond. A profound and challenging vision, to be sure.

Postscript: it is fascinating to note that the word “pe’ah” occurs earlier in Emor in a decidedly different context:

(The sons of Aaron) shall not shave smooth any part of their heads, or cut the side-growth of their beards (“pe’at z’kanam”) (Leviticus 21:5)

Clearly there is something going on with Emor and untrimmed edges! Could it be that pey’ot represent yet another way of expressing this unique spiritual vision? This question is of particular note since the festival of Lag B’Omer – the holiday which is celebrated in many traditional communities with the first haircut of three year old boys (a ritual known as Upsherin).

Just a few thoughts before you reach for the lawn edger (or scissors) this weekend…

2 thoughts on “Let the Edges Run Wild!

  1. Shirley Gould

    Another radical thought: individual ownership of property cannot be justified except in a capitalist system. We are a nation of rugged individuals, and have inherited a tendency to protect our individual rights and property. I cannot imagine developing a feeling of communal ownership as we are. And really, what is the good of the grass at the edges? Since I live in a condo, I can be objective about “trimming the edges.”

  2. Lesley Williams

    What I don’t get about “the ownership society” is that it’s so wasteful. Sure, if I own my own car, I may take better care of it, but I don’t NEED a car most of the time. I’d rather spend less money on a car share service like I-Go, http://www.igocars.org/ or on public transportation, and spend my car money elsewhere.

    The ownership model is fundamentally anti-sharing. It assumes that sharing means one group does all the giving and others all the taking, yet it fails to recognize the benefits to the community at large. If I take the el, I use up less fuel, and produce less pollution, which benefits everyone. If quality health care and child care are available to everyone, fewer people miss work, and everyone is safer from catastrophic disease. If quality education is available to everyone, the work force is better prepared.

    Americans, despite being “rugged individualists” ARE prepared to share, but typically only with those who are like themselves. We see this in everything from communes, to condo associations to gated communities. How do we move as a society from this limited notion of sharing to a more universal one?


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