I’m a tangential thinker. What I mean by that is that I can be in the middle of doing one task when something reminds me of another task I need to do, so I stop task one to either make a note of task two, or I actually go do task two before coming back to task one. Hopefully task two doesn’t remind me of a third task, otherwise it just spirals out of control from there.
For example, I can be writing one of my weekly Torah reflections (like I am now), when someone comes into my office and asks me a question. That question leads me to another task, and I totally lose my train of thought. To combat this, I’ve recently started asking people to wait when I’m writing so I can write down my thoughts and outline where I want to go so I won’t forget. While this strategy is only about 85% effective in keeping me on my current train of thought, it does help trigger my memory so I can mostly recall where I was going and how I wanted to get there.
We see tangential thinking happen all the time in the Talmud. The rabbis are engaged in a conversation about one topic when someone brings a proof text that reminds a rabbi of a different topic, and then they veer off course for a bit before returning to the original topic. It is how human beings often work in relationship with one another. It is less common in the Torah, where the narrative generally has a clear path from one part to the next. However, in this week’s Torah portion, we have a few of these moments of tangents.
As we read Parshat Emor, we once again find ourselves deep into the commandments surrounding Jewish practice. Parshat Emor focuses on the rules and regulations for the priests, along with the obligations of the Israelites. It covers the observance of certain holidays, including mentions about the holiness of Shabbat, other holidays we are to celebrate throughout the year, and the ways in which we are to treat one another and even animals. The majority of these rituals are meant to be done in public, with the entire community a part of them.
The general flow of the text moves from one holiday observance to the next with clear understandings of how each holiday will be celebrated. But, when you get to the laws of Shavuot and the harvest season, followed by the transition to the laws for Rosh Hashanah, called the “Day of Remembrance” in the text, there is a single verse between them that is not a directive about either holiday specifically. In the midst of all the specific guidelines for holiday observance, we read chapter 23, verse 22: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God.”
This verse speaks of the general harvest and cleaning and interrupts the list of festivals. Why? The Sifra, a Midrashic commentary on the book of Leviticus, suggests that perhaps it’s either because Shavuot itself occurs during a time of harvest, or because on Shavuot we read the Book of Ruth, which magnifies the principal in this verse. Yet a third reason could be because when you share your bounty with the poor, it is as if it were offered on God’s altar.
A tangent it may be, but this tangential verse opens our eyes to the ways in which each task is connected, even if we may not see it right away. Shavuot is a holiday honoring God through the harvest, but the way we harvest can honor other members of our community. The opposite is also true in Judaism. In addition to our everyday blessings and prayers, every opportunity to lift each other up is another opportunity to honor God.