By HaRav Mordechai Greenberg
Rosh HaYeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh
"And when you cut the harvest of your land, do not remove the edge of the field when you cut it, and do not gather the leftovers of your harvest. Leave them for the poor people and the strangers – I am your G-d." [Vayikra 23:22].
In the tractate of Pei'ah in the Mishna it is written that one who does not let the poor people gather the produce in the field but rather collects it himself and distributes it to them is guilty of stealing from the poor. But this is not easy to understand. What difference does it make to the poor people if the owner of the field helps them and harvests the material at the edges of the field and the leftovers and gives it to the poor?
Rav Kook explains in his book "Ein Ayah" (Pei'ah, Chapter 6, section 6). The Torah has commanded the owner to allow the poor person to gather the grains on his own, just like a person who is harvesting in his own field. This is meant to teach us that the gift to the poor people does not stem from our pity and is not a show of generosity by the owner – rather, the law of the Torah is that this section at the edge of the field belongs to the poor person. He is taking his own part of the harvest, not as a contribution by the owner but rather as a possession given to him by the Torah. And that is why the poor people enter the field and gather the produce as if it belonged to them.
One of the questions the Roman commander Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva was related to this: "If your G-d loves poor people, why doesn't he provide sustenance directly to them?" And Rabbi Akiva replied, "This is to save us from the punishment of Gehenom." What Turnus Rufus wanted to point out is that it is written, "The silver is mine, the gold is mine, says G-d" [Chagai 2:8]. So if G-d wants to give the poor people money, He can just as well do it on His own. But if He does not do this, then evidently G-d wants the poor people to suffer, so why should we support them against the Divine will? Rabbi Akiva's answer was that the Holy One, Blessed be He, purposely created the world with missing elements, thereby leaving it to humanity to complete the Creation. If there are any poor people, it is our duty to help them and to remember that He who provides for His creatures gives them an excess so that they will be able to utilize it to help other people too. To what can this be compared? It is like a small child who begs his mother to give him some money because he wants to buy her a gift for her birthday.
This also corresponds to what King David wrote after he collected the money needed to build the Temple: "The wealth and the glory stem from You, and You rule over everything, and in Your hand is all the power and the might... And now, our G-d, we thank you... For who am I, and who is my nation, that we should gather the power to donate in this way? Everything comes from You, and we gave it to You from Your own hand." [Divrei Hayamim I 29:12-14]. Rashi notes, "What we donated we gave You from Your own hand."