Corners – a modern midrash

It’s Elul, time for preparing for the new year to come. And you know what that means.

School restarts.

As a child, I remember the beginning of the school year being a time when you picked out your new notebook (Trapper Keeper, anyone?), paper, folders, pens, pencils, backpack, clothes, etc. I remember there being plentiful chalk in the classrooms, erasers to go with the chalk, and never paying a textbook rental fee or having to provide school supplies for use by the entire class.

Times change. Or is it that I grew up in Florida and Indiana has always been different?

In any case, this week and last week I’ve made trips to the big-box office supply stores for school supplies for my son. The schools provide lists with the supplies each child in each grade level is expected to purchase for use in the classroom. Not that these supplies are assigned to that child, in particular–rather, everything seems to go into a pool of supplies that students share, or have assigned to them ad hoc, or something.

This stuff is not negligible in cost, at least, not to me. You can easily drop $80 to $100 in school supplies for materials your child mostly won’t personally consume. It’s not that your kid will be sitting there using the whole pack of dry erase markers, the whole tube of disinfectant wipes, etc., as much as everyone’s kid ends up generating demand and the entirety of the stuff gets wiped out over the school year.

My wife is probably tired of me carping about this.

This year, when I went to buy the supplies, I didn’t really think about the bit where schools rely on parents for basic operational supplies for the classroom. I instead remembered that there would be kids whose parents couldn’t shell out what I was about to spend. And, curiously, that got me thinking about the biblical commandment of peah.

Aerial photo of an irrigation project

Aerial photo of an irrigation project; note the corners…

Peah means, in Hebrew, “corner.” The commandment of peah, located in Leviticus 19:9-10, requires that when harvesting occurs, the corners of the field must be left unharvested so that the poor can gather food from those parts of the fields. The tractate of the Mishnah that sets forth the rabbinic laws on peah (a tractate cleverly named…Peah) opens by elevating the commandment of peah to one that has “no measure,” among such better-known commandments as gemilut hasadim (acts of loving-kindness) and talmud torah (study).

So how did I buy school supplies this year? I didn’t worry so much about how much I bought. So, if the sheet said “three boxes of pencils,” I bought three very large boxes of pencils. If it said, “two packs of Post It notes,” I bought two large packs (actually, I bought the single largest pack I could find–which was definitely more than two large packs of the notes).

In other words–not only did I buy school supplies, I bought the corners of the field. And I think this is one of those areas where humanist Jews can rely on Jewish traditions to animate our own decisions today.

So, when you can, buy the corners, too.

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