Our Rabbis teach us that there are 613 commandments, mitzvot, in the Torah. There are many ways to divide these commandments: positive (You must…) vs negative (You must not…), ritual vs ethical, etc. But by studying this past week’s Torah portion of Ki Tetze, we can see another way to divide the commandments.
While there are some commandments we must perform, some we only perform if the opportunity arises: such as returning a lost object or sending away the mother bird before taking from the nest. We can’t plan to observe these mitzvot, we can only observe them if given the opportunity.
But, there is in addition to these, one mitzvah which falls into neither category.
There is a mitzvah which we can only observe unintentionally.
This is the mitzvah of the forgotten sheaf. According to the Torah, if after harvesting one’s field, one realizes that one has forgotten to take in a sheaf of wheat from the field, one is forbidden to return to claim the sheaf. We must leave it for the needy.
This mitzvah can only be observed unintentionally. One can certainly pro-actively leave a sheaf in the field for the poor- in fact the mitzvah of peah, leaving the corners of the field unharvested for the poor to take is a reflection of this. But, one can not claim to have forgotten a sheaf if that was done on purpose. The mitzvah can only be fulfilled if, in fact, the sheaf was actually forgotten. Thus, only by the unplanned act of forgetting the sheaf can this mitzvah be fulfilled.
So, what does this have to say to those of us who are not farmers?
Perhaps the message here is that sometimes we do good things for people without intending it or even without realizing that we have, in fact, done so. Sometimes, we perform acts which have unintended and unidentified positive effects.
As we approach the High Holy Days, we consider our lives and consider the good and the bad that we have done. It is human nature that we might have performed acts which were harmful to others without realizing it and so we have to atone for sins we know of and those we might not be aware of.
But, we should also take comfort in the possibility that something we did benefitted someone else without our knowing it. We should take some measure of solace in believing that, in fact, we might have metaphorically speaking forgotten a sheaf in the field which ended up benefitting a fellow human being.