Important reminder about the forgotten sheaf


Shichaha, the commandment to leave behind a forgotten sheaf of grain for the needs of the poor, is a key agriculturally-based mitzvah that appears in our parasha, Ki Tetze: When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to take it; it shall be [left] for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that the L-rd, your G-d, will bless you in all that you do. (Devarim 24:19)

The Rambam formulates our mitzvah in the following manner: “The 122nd mitzvah that we are commanded is to leave over the sheaves which were forgotten (shichaha) during the harvest process. The source of this commandment is G-d’s statement, “[When you reap your harvest] and forget a sheaf in the field, you may not go back for it. It must be left for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow.” This phrase, “It must be left for the stranger, the orphan, and widow,” constitutes the positive commandment to leave over [these forgotten sheaves] ...The Biblical requirement applies only in Eretz Yisrael. (Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Commandment 122)

The anonymous author of the 13th century Sefer HaChinuch sheds light upon the underlying rationale of this commandment, and enables us to gain a deeper appreciation of its singular import: Regarding the fundamental basis of the commandment: When the poor and destitute … in their [grinding] poverty look at the produce [of the field] in a [desperate and] dependent manner — while gazing upon the field’s owner sheaving their sheaves...they [consequently] think in their [heart of] hearts:  “Who will give [in order] that it will be like this for me, [so that, I, too, can] gather sheaves into my house, for if I could bring [in even] one [sheaf], I would rejoice in it.” As such, [this commandment stems] from His kindnesses towards His creatures, may He be blessed, in order to fulfill their desire when it so happens that the owner of the field forgets it [the sheaves]. (Commandment 592)

Thus far, the Sefer HaChinuch has focused upon Hashem’s great kindness in providing for the overwhelming needs of His creations, in this case, through the agency of the owner of the field. This is congruent with the celebrated pasuk that we recite three times a day in Ashrei: “You open Your hand and satisfy every living thing [with] its desire.” (Tehillim 145:16)  At the same time, our anonymous author emphasizes the benefits that accrue to the owner of the field: There is also a benefit for the owner of the field, in that he acquires through this a goodly soul; for truly through the trait of generosity and a blessed soul that does not place its heart upon the forgotten sheaf and leaves it to the destitute - on those with such a soul - does the blessing of G-d descend forever.

I believe the Sefer HaChinuch is teaching us a profound two-fold lesson: The mitzvah of shichaha simultaneously provides for the vital needs of the most vulnerable in society, and positively shapes the moral and spiritual persona of the one who fulfills this commandment. This is particularly the case since the arena of action regarding this commandment, unlike most mitzvot, is one of pure accident. The owner of the field must choose to respond in a precisely prescribed manner wherein he disregards the financial loss pursuant to the forgotten sheaf and leaves it, instead, for the needy. This notion is given powerful voice in the following story:

The following incident occurred to a righteous individual (chasid echad) who forgot a sheaf of grain in the midst of his field. He said to his son: “Go and offer a steer as a completely burnt offering and another steer as a free-will celebratory offering in my name.” His son then said to him: “Father, what have you seen in this mitzvah that causes you to rejoice more so on its behalf than any other mitzvah that is stated in the Torah?” He responded to him: “The Omnipresent One (HaMakom) gave us the majority of the Torah’s mitzvot to be performed in a planful manner (l’da’atainu); this commandment, [however,] was given to us to be performed solely in an unplanned scenario. This is the case, since if we purposefully [and consciously leave sheaves in the field] in order to attempt to fulfill this mitzvah before the Omnipresent, it will not account to us as a fulfillment of the commandment.

At this juncture, the chasid echad explains to his son the ultimate reason for his overwhelming joy in fulfilling this mitzvah: The Torah states concerning this commandment: “so that the L-rd, your G-d, will bless you in all that you do” — that is, the text establishes a [special] bracha (blessing) for one who fulfills this commandment. Can we not, therefore, establish a kal v’chomer (that is, “if this is the case, certainly that is the case”) statement regarding these matters? Namely: Since it is true that an individual who does not intend to acquire merit [as in shichaha] nonetheless achieves reward to the point that the Torah considers it as if this was his intention all along, all the more so would this be so regarding one who is well-aware that his actions will bring him reward [and will ultimately receive that which is promised]. (Tosefta Masechet Pe’ah, Professor Saul Lieberman edition, III:8, translation and brackets my own)

In sum, the chasid echad ecstatically performed the mitzvah of shichaha, and demonstrated his joy by having his son bring offerings on his behalf, since for this holy person, the mitzvah of shichaha provided proof that Hashem is He Who promises and surely fulfills. 

May each of us merit the reward that the Holy One blessed be He has promised us, both in this world and in the world to come. As we encounter in one of the concluding verses of Yigdal: “Gomel l’ish chesed k’mif’alo” — “He bestows kindness [reward] upon an individual according to his actions.” V’chane yihi ratzon.