Peah: Offering a Vision for Society, Dedicated to the Memory of Jordan Neely z”l
D’var Torah, Parshat Emor
May 6, 2023
About 7 years ago, I snapped a photo of an impressive Michael Jackson impersonator who was dancing the moonwalk in the park by City Hall. I put the photo on social media with the caption “Reason number 1289 that I love NYC.”
This past week, that street performer who many of us encountered over the years through his talent, was killed on a NYC subway by a former marine, aided by two passengers while the rest looked on without saying a word.
The victim, Jordan Neely, was a homeless 30 year old black man struggling with mental illness. He was desperate and hungry. Neely was having a mental health episode on the subway train, raising his voice, and according to the witnesses, saying he was hungry and thirsty and “didn’t care if he would go to jail or if he was going to die.”
Surely, Neely made those on that train feel uncomfortable, scared — and I don’t want to disregard that reality. Especially as a mom with two children who ride the train by themselves, one who does every day.
Yet even as we acknowledge the fear we may have each felt (or have felt) in times when people on the train who are clearly struggling with homelessness and/or mental health issues raise their voices and act in belligerent ways, we must also be able to say unequivocally that Jordan Neely did not deserve to die. He should be alive today.
And we as a city and as human beings need to wrestle with what this incident says about us as a city and as a society — and about what we can learn and where we go from here.
Today’s Torah portion Emor offers us a meaningful and important place to start with that wrestling and visioning.
In the second section of Parshat Emor, starting in Chapter 23, the Torah speaks about the Jewish holiday cycle, starting with the holy Sabbath, then to Passover and through all the special “mo’adim” — appointed times we dedicate as holy to God.
Out of context in this larger group of commandments about holiday observance, we hear a second time the commandment of “Peah” — where farmers in an agrarian society do not reap their harvest all the way- leaving the edges of the field open for the poor and the stranger.
First coming to us through the Holiness Codes, Peah is one of those torah commandments that inspire a culture and ethic of giving in Jewish life. It is a foundational commandment to our self-understanding as a people. In that light and with this tragedy front of mind, I want to talk about two primary functions of Peah- first, for society as a whole and second, for individuals.
The first: As a society.
Within the mitzvah of “Peah” is both a recognition of a problem and a solution to that problem. There is an understanding even before this vision of society comes to be that inequity may arise based on a number of factors — and there is a remedy put in place so that those who do not have can get what they need to survive and thrive.
As such, Peah is a safety net system. It is a simple one, because agrarian life was certainly more straightforward and easy to manage than the complex one we live in. But at its heart, it is a vision for a society that ANTICIPATES NEEDS AND PLANS for those on the margins to find the resources they need to survive.
When we have a solid safety net, society may not be equal, according to this torah commandment — but even in that state of some relative inequality, it will be plentiful, it will ensure that everyone has a minimum of what they need. And that they can access those needs in ways that keep up their dignity and their pride.
In thinking about Jordan Neely’s tragic death, we must recognize that while he is one individual, he is a symbol of the failures of the system as a whole.
Jordan Neely experienced profound tragedy when his mother was murdered by her partner when he was thirteen years old. This led him, as it would anyone, to significant mental health issues including PTSD. He immediately entered into the foster care system, where he had limited, if any, access to mental health services.
Because of the failures in the safety net system, when he aged out of the foster care system, he was not given a housing voucher at eighteen years of age, rather told to fend for himself. Without financial assistance, especially in a city like New York, and given his past instability and struggles, he naturally struggled with housing instability, which increased his mental health issues.
This connection and cycle of housing insecurity and mental health connection is something I have learned first hand in my conversations with my friend Shams DaBaron, the housing advocate and formerly homeless man I met through the Lucerne. It is often losing housing that initiates or exacerbates mental health crises, not only the other way around.
And, we have to reckon with other realities and systems of oppression in this moment as well, in terms of how all these safety net systems align with larger systems of discrimination and oppression. And with race itself-would Neely have seemed as threatening or scary had it not been for his skin color and the perceived danger that he represents?
And for those that have brought up Neely’s criminal record, we have to ask the questions about the way poverty is criminalized, as so many of the charges against him (not all!) were minor infractions that tend to be given against those without homes or without food. This is not to dismiss the more serious cases — but nonetheless, none of those past offenses needed to culminate in a death sentence in a moment of vulnerability.
While Neely was one person in one moment in time, there is an entire system that failed him up so that he got to that point of desperation and unhinged mental health in the first place.
The model of Peah is an antidote- if we create systems where those on the margins can access care in a dignified way, then we will have protected the most vulnerable in our midst.
We must commit and recommit to that social safety net, including in our city- one that is in jeopardy in the current Mayor’s proposed budget for significant cuts to social services including mental health care.
Second, Peah helps us guide our actions as individuals.
Peah offers an opportunity for those in need to get their basic needs met while preserving their dignity. However, Peah is not only “for” the poor- it also teaches those who “have” — those who are the ones to leave the corners of the fields not harvested.
Here is a teaching by R. Moses Alshich, a 16th century Torah commentator: Ashlich plays on the notion that the commandment for Peah is said in the plural, i.e. “your land” in the Hebrew plural form. By this, the Torah means to remind everyone that this land that God gives the land is for ALL of us.
In other words: this stuff you have — it’s not meant just for you! It’s meant for everyone. And this knowledge should challenge simplistic notions of poor/wealthy, owners/landless, you/other. R. Alshich says: “Don’t despise this person who is taking from you — The poor person is also My (God’s) child.”
This incredible gloss on the text offers a stunning insight: Peah is not just for the poor and the needy — it is for the giver, to help them further understand the interconnectedness of all beings and the Divine care for each and every person.
It is a spiritual reminder for us that those who are in need are our siblings. That they are not radically OTHER than us.
They are not so different from us.
They are themselves made in the image of the Divine.
Peah is to help us cultivate Compassion- Hesed.
Peah, in this light, is also about increasing our own compassion for those who perhaps make us uncomfortable, those perhaps we find coming into “our spaces.” And if you take it that much further, we might read into this insight: We are all in this together.
Coming of the pandemic where so many of us are still dealing with trauma, living in a world with so much sinat hinam (baseless hatred), compassion is in extraordinarily short order these days.
The answer to fear is not vigilantism. The answer to fear is compassion. When we feel uncomfortable, we can react or we can find compassion in our hearts. Hesed is the currency we need so we can live in a society where people can live in safety and in peace. At the very least, it is a starting point.
These teachings together provide a vision for us as a city and as individuals. A strong safety net that begets a society in which no one is in the terrible position Neely was in that day married with compassion to those who are struggling, even and perhaps especially those who make us uncomfortable with the hard truths of poverty, mental illness, houselessness and more.
We need justice for Jordan Neely. We need to work to change our city and our world. And we need the kind of compassion that breeds a sense that we are in this together, one that lifts up the image of the Divine instead of destroying it.