The Last Resort

Headshot of Rabbi Ronnie Cohen
Headshot of Rabbi Ronnie Cohen
Rabbi Ronnie Cohen z"l

Rabbi Ronnie Cohen z"l was a rabbinic student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies beginning in 2002.  After his ordination he returned to AJU to teach and mentor other young rabbis.  His commentaries were written during this time.

posted on May 3, 2014
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

When we got to the resort, a long two-hour drive from the airport, there was nothing remarkable about it. It was like any other resort: comfortable bungalows, but certainly not luxurious, swimming pool, tennis courts, golf course, restaurant, game room. Nothing special. I would say the first odd thing we noticed about the place was at the restaurant when we went for dinner that first night. You understand, we weren't obliged to eat at the resort restaurant. The town was only a ten minute drive away, and it wasn't as though our room fees included dinner. But we figured, we might as well check out the restaurant -- after all, we had an entire week to explore the restaurants in town.

Although the restaurant was crowded, the lines of people waiting for a table were moving fast, and it looked like it wouldn't be too long a wait. At the time, I didn't stop to wonder why, in fact, there seemed to be two lines of people waiting for tables. In less than five minutes, the hostess showed us to our table, gave us menus and took our drink order. "Is this your first time here?" she asked, after we had taken care of business, and I lied and told her that we had been here before, since I wasn't particularly interested in that little spiel hosts go through on the history of their restaurant. It was a nice menu with a decent wine list, just a little bit pricey, but we figured, "Hey, what are vacations for?"

As we were perusing the menu, the people got up from the table next to us, and I noticed that they had actually left quite a bit of food on their serving dishes. Apparently, this was a family-style restaurant, with all the food served in serving dishes, so everyone at the table could try everything. As we were ordering, the busboy came to clean off the table and reset it. We each selected an appetizer and an entree, and the waiter said, as I'm sure they're all taught in waiter school, "Excellent choice!" to each of our selections.

Waiting for our food, we nursed our drinks, munched on the bread-sticks that had come with them, and played our usual restaurant game. Glancing to my left, I saw a table with two couples, one in their early fifties, and the other in their twenties. I nodded in that direction and said, "Meet the parents dinner. They are the boy's father, and they're not pleased with her."

"Too easy," my wife said, after she had surreptitiously looked at them. "What about the group coming to the table next to us? I'd say the younger couple are brother and sister, but the older couple are not married, and the kids belong to Dad."

I turned my head, as if looking for our waiter, so I could check out the foursome being seated. Even though this was a casual restaurant, I was surprised at how casually they were dressed. The older couple's clothes in particular looked threadbare in places. My wife was clearly right about the brother and sister, but I was having a harder time with the older couple. I was concentrating on them so much that I noted only absent-mindedly that the busboy in clearing the table had neglected to remove the serving dishes that still had the food from the previous party. Our food came just as I was saying, "I think they are married, but you're right about the kids belonging to Dad; she's the step-mom."

The food portions were really generous. We soon realized that pound for pound, the restaurant wasn't pricey at all: the quantities were enormous. What made the portions seem even bigger is that the dinner plates were really small, way out of proportion. The serving dishes, of course, were huge. And what's more, those holding hot food were actually hotplates, so that every time you took another portion, it was nice and hot. We each managed to finish our appetizers and make a good dent in our entrees when we finally reached our limits, and asked the waiter for a doggy bag.

"I'm very sorry," he said with genuine sorrow in his voice, another technique I was sure he had learned at waiter school, "I thought you understood."

"Understood what?" I asked.

"Understood that we don't give out doggy bags at the restaurant."

"Look, I don't care what you call it, just give us something in which we can carry this extra food to our rooms. Between us, we've got a pint of mashed potatoes, three quarters of a chicken and two ribs. If you don't have any disposable containers, let us take the plates, and I'll be happy to give you a deposit to guarantee their return."

"I'm very sorry," he said again, "I'm obviously doing a poor job of explaining this to you. It's not that we don't have containers, or that we don't trust you with the plates. Rather, it is the policy of this establishment that you're more than welcome to eat whatever you want in the restaurant. However, once you get up from the table, you're not allowed to take any uneaten food with you."

"I can't take any uneaten food with me? But I'm paying for it! Or are you going to not charge me for the uneaten food?"

"I'm sorry," he said for the third time, and it was beginning to get on my nerves, "you are indeed paying for it, and no, we cannot reduce the charge for the uneaten food."

"So I'm paying for it, but I can't have it."

"You can have it, sir, at the table. But no, you cannot take it back to your room."

"That's ridiculous," I wanted to shout, but managed to keep my voice controlled. "It's not as if you can sell it to someone else, for God's sake. What are you going to do with it?"

"I can assure you, sir, that the food will not go to waste. Now, can I get you some coffee and dessert?"

"No," I grumbled, "just give us the check." As we walked out, grousing at 'the policy of this establishment,' I noticed the busboy come to clear our table. "We could have easily made another full meal of the food we left," I said to my wife, glancing back at the table which was already set with new place settings, even though the busboy still hadn't removed the serving dishes. I remember thinking to myself that it was funny they made sure that the waiters were all properly trained, but that no one had bothered to train the busboys in the niceties of clearing the table completely before resetting it. As I turned to face forward, I noticed an old couple being led to our table. There was no mistaking that they were from south of the poverty line. The thought crossed my mind that I should go back to the table and tell the old couple not to waste their money ordering more food; they should just finish our food, since it was already paid for.

And then, all of the sudden, everything clicked into place. The two lines, the large portions, the small dinner plates, the obvious poverty of some of the diners, the no doggy bags, and the serving dishes on hotplates left at the table. That's exactly what the old couple was going to do: finish our mashed potatoes, chicken and ribs. That's what 'the policy of this establishment' was: to feed the poor, in a dignified and hygienic manner, from the leftovers of those who could afford to be generous. This was not charity, at the whim of the waiters or hosts or paying diners: the system was specifically designed this way, and the poor had just as much right to line up in their line, had just as much right to the leftover food on the table they were shown to, as did those of us who were more fortunate and were in the paying line.

During the week we were at the resort, we saw this policy carried out in a variety of manners. For example, in the ceramics workshop I took, the amount of clay the instructor told me to buy for the project I wanted to do turned out to be about 15% more than I needed, and when I finished my project I noticed someone else working with my leftover clay. By the time we checked out, it came as no surprise that we were charged for eight nights, even though we had only spent seven nights there; some couple, hard on their luck, would be able to use our 'leftover' night.

Did I tell you the name of the resort? If I had thought about the name at the beginning, their policy might not have come as such a surprise: The Gleaners.

* * * * *

Our parsha this Shabbat is Emor. And about midway through the section, we find this one isolated sentence in the middle of an entire passage devoted to the holidays of the year:

LEV 23:22 And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of the field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I the Lord am your God.

It is difficult for us to picture a farmer who spends the entire growing year tending the field, worrying about rain and insects and weeds, and then being told he cannot harvest his entire crop. He has to leave the corners. If anything falls down while he's harvesting, he has to leave it. If he forgets a bunch, he can't go back and get it. All of these things he must leave for the poor. It belongs to them, and if he were to go back and get it, not only would he be guilty of violating the commandments about gleaning; he would be guilty of theft. By law, once he has made one pass through his field, whatever he has left behind no longer belongs to him. And these entitlements of the poor aren't instead of taxes and tithes the farmer has to pay; they are in addition to them!

Imagine telling farmers in America they have to behave like that. Imagine running a resort like the one I described.

The idea of the resort is so far-fetched because it flies in the face of the basic organizing principles of our society.

The economic basis of Western society is that each of us has an inalienable right to pursue the ownership of property. We recognize that the right of ownership may be subject, for the greater good, to communal regulation and taxation, but the bedrock of the system is our right to the property.

The economic basis of Biblical society is that God owns everything, and we have the inalienable right to pursue stewardship of property. As stewards we wield a great deal of autonomy and authority. Indeed, we are partners with God in developing this property, and making the most of it, and we are entitled to enjoy the perquisites of our job, i.e., the benefits of the property. But the bedrock of this system is God's ownership of the property, and if He says the poor have an inalienable right to the gleanings, that's just part of the deal. If He says that every 7 years, debts are released, and slaves are freed, that every 50 years land reverts back to the families of the original owners, these are simply the terms of the stewardship agreement.

The challenge facing us as Jews in 21st Century America, is to bring innovative approaches to poverty that translate the Biblical concepts of stewardship, and of the inalienable rights of the poor to food (not to mention clothing, shelter, healthcare, education, productive employment and self-respect) in a manner that's consistent with the basic principles of our Western society. Not an easy task.

However, as it says in Pirkei Avot, we're not required to finish the job, but we cannot stop working on it.

Shabbat Shalom.