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December 7, 2016 / 7 Kislev, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘grace’

How to Give

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

Listen to these stories. Behind them lies an extraordinary insight into the nature of Jewish ethics:

Story 1. Rabbi Abba used to bind money in his scarf, sling it on his back, and place it at the disposal of the poor (Ketubot 67b).

Story 2. Mar Ukba had a poor man in his neighborhood into whose door socket he used to throw four coins every day. Once the poor man thought, “I will go and see who does me this kindness.” That day Mar Ukba stayed late at the house of study and his wife was coming home with him. As soon as the poor man saw them moving the door (to leave the coins) he ran out after them, but they fled from him and hid. Why did they do this? Because it was taught: One should throw himself into a fiery furnace rather than publicly put his neighbor to shame (Ketubot 67b).

Story 3. When Rabbi Jonah saw a man of good family who had lost his money and was ashamed to accept charity, he would go and say to him, “I have heard that an inheritance has come your way in a city across the sea. So here is an article of some value. Sell it and use the proceeds. When you are more affluent, you will repay me.” As soon as the man took it, Rabbi Jonah would say, “It’s yours is a gift” (Vayikra Rabbah 34:1).

These stories all have to do with the mitzvah of tzedakah whose source is in this week’s parshah:

“If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need…Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8, 10-11).

What we have here is a unique and still remarkable program for the elimination of poverty.

The first extraordinary fact about the laws of tzedakah as articulated in the Oral Tradition is the concept itself. Tzedakah does not mean “charity.” We see this immediately in the form of a law inconceivable in any other moral system: “Someone who does not wish to give tzedakah or to give less than is appropriate may be compelled to do so by a Jewish court of law” (Maimonides, Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 7:10). Charity is always voluntary. Tzedakah is compulsory. Therefore tzedakah does not mean charity. The nearest English equivalent is social justice.

The second is the principle evident in the three stories above. Poverty in Judaism is conceived not merely in material terms: the poor lack the means of sustenance. It is also conceived in psychological terms. Poverty humiliates. It robs people of dignity. It makes them dependent on others – thus depriving them of independence which the Torah sees as essential to self-respect.

This deep psychological insight is eloquently expressed in the third paragraph of the Grace after Meals: “Please, O Lord our God, do not make us dependent on the gifts or loans of other people, but only on Your full, open, holy and generous hand so that we may suffer neither shame nor humiliation for ever and all time.”

As a result, Jewish law focuses not only on how much we must give but also on the manner in which we do so. Ideally the donor should not know to whom he or she is giving (story 1), nor the recipient know from whom he or she is receiving (story 2). The third story exemplifies another principle: “If a poor person does not want to accept tzedakah, we should practice a form of [benign] deception and give it to him under the guise of a loan” (Maimonides, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 7:9).

Maimonides sums up the general principle thus: “Whoever gives charity to the poor with bad grace and averted eyes has lost all the merit of his action even though he gives him a thousand gold pieces. He should give with good grace and with joy and should sympathize with him in his plight, as it is said, ‘Have I not wept for those in trouble? Has not my soul grieved for the poor?’ [Job 30:25]” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:4).

This is the logic behind two laws that are otherwise inexplicable. The first is “Even a poor person who is dependent on tzedakah is obliged to give tzedakah” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 7:5). The law seems absurd. Why should we give money to the poor so that they may give to the poor? It makes sense only on this assumption – that giving is essential to human dignity and tzedakah is the obligation to ensure that everyone has that dignity.

The second is the famous ruling of Maimonides that “the highest degree of charity, exceeded by none, is when a person assists a poor Jew by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him find employment – in a word, by putting him in a situation where he can dispense with other people’s aid” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7).

Giving someone a job or making him your partner would not normally be considered charity at all. It costs you nothing. But this further serves to show that tzedakah does not mean charity. It means giving people the means to live a dignified life, and any form of employment is more dignified, within the Jewish value system, than dependence.

We have in this ruling of Maimonides in the 12th century the principle that Muhammad Yunus rediscovered in our time, and for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize: the idea of micro-loans enabling poor people to start small businesses. It is a very powerful idea.

In contradistinction to many other religious systems, Judaism refused to romanticize poverty or anaesthetize its pain. Faith is not what Karl Marx called “the opium of the people.” The rabbis refused to see poverty as a blessed state, an affliction to be born with acceptance and grace. Instead, the rabbis called it “a kind of death” and “worse than 50 plagues.” They said, “Nothing is harder to bear than poverty, because he who is crushed by poverty is like one to whom all the troubles of the world cling and upon whom all the curses of Deuteronomy have descended. If all other troubles were placed on one side and poverty on the other, poverty would outweigh them all.”

Maimonides went to the heart of the matter when he said (The Guide for the Perplexed 3:27), “The well-being of the soul can only be obtained after that of the body has been secured.” Poverty is not a noble state. You cannot reach spiritual heights if you have no food to eat or a roof for your head, if you lack access to medical attention or are beset by financial worries.

I know of no saner approach to poverty, welfare, and social justice than that of Judaism. Unsurpassed in its time, it remains the benchmark of a decent society to this day.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Heavenly Grace: Seizing the Moment

Tuesday, September 11th, 2007

Tishrei, the month represented by the balancing scale, appropriately marks the end of the first six-month cycle and occurs at a time of year when day and night are of equal duration.

Submerged in deep sleep, my unconscious reverie is suddenly intruded upon by the merciless clang of the alarm clock. Desperate to hold on to that exquisite state of dreaminess and safe escape, my hand fumbles for the snooze button again and again, until, bit by weary bit, I allow reality to overtake my senses. I chide myself as I get ready to greet the oncoming day: With such a level of enthusiasm, how will I ever face the music on Judgment Day – the first of Tishrei?

As an aid to fine-tuning our sense of balance, a benevolent Creator gave us the month of Elul, aptly represented by the symbol of Virgo, the feminine characterization of wholesome purity. Following on the heels of the summer season that lends itself well to a nonrestrictive existence, the arrival of Elul is heralded by the call of the shofar, sounded for the duration of the month to afford men and women windows of opportunity through which to emerge from listlessness and repose.

Libra’s dislike of taking sides can interfere with this sign’s uncanny power of reasoning. The amiable Libra personality strives for harmony above all – to have congenial relationships all around.

* * *

Reb Dovid Lelover was known for his tremendous compassion for all living things. He would never take his meal before the chickens were fed. Even his wagon driver knew not to overload his carriage when Reb Dovid was aboard. To use his riding whip would be out of the question; Reb Dovid simply did not tolerate mistreatment of Hashem’s creatures.
When the summer heat would leave both man and animal parched, Reb Dovid would make it his business to visit the marketplace and wait for the wagon drivers to be off to purchase their wares. He would then approach the horses with cans of water to relieve their thirst, recognizing that their preoccupied owners would neglect the comfort of their helpless animals.

The tzaddik Reb Yitzchok Vorker once accompanied Reb Dovid on a journey to the Lubliner Rebbe – also known as the Chozeh (seer) of Lublin – for the High Holy days. Their wagon driver, a softhearted fellow, stopped to pick up wayfarers along the way, and the extra cargo weighed the carriage down. A concerned Reb Dovid informed Reb Yitzchok that they would continue on foot, for it was enough that the horses had to lug their baggage.

On that Rosh Hashanah, the Chozeh’s followers puzzled over his delay in blowing the shofar. Reb Yitzchok, who noted the Chozeh’s focus on the vacant seat that had earlier been occupied by Reb Dovid, rushed out of the shul in search of the Lelover Tzaddik. He located him in the carriage house, holding aloft a yarmulke full of hay from which the horses were feeding.

“We have a frum carriage driver,” remarked Reb Dovid. “This awe-inspiring day has made him forget that his animals are sin-free and have no need for fasting. ‘V’rachamov al kol maasov,’ we read in Tehillim. God’s mercies are on all His works. His compassion extends to all of His creations.”

The instant the Lelover Tzaddik reentered the bais hamedrash, the Chozeh of Lublin seized the moment to launch into a fervent recitation of Lamnatzayach.

The Chozeh was later heard to say that thanks to Reb Dovid, the shofar’s wails spread across all the celestial spheres. The compassionate tzaddik‘s great sensitivity toward other living entities had awakened God’s mercy for all of Klal Yisrael, effectively muzzling the condemnatory Satan.

Kind and gentle by nature, the Libra persona cannot tolerate cruelty in any form. Agreeable, sympathetic and loving, the Tishrei native makes a loyal and forgiving partner and friend.

* * *

Every Yom Kippur eve, the saintly Reb Zusha would strive to heighten the awareness of his disciples, to infuse them with the holiness of the Yom Tov and thereby touch them to the core of their beings. On one erev Yom Kippur, however, the usual pep talk was absent and no mussar was forthcoming.

Those present were certain that the Prosecuting Angel was deploying his wares, pleading his case against Hashem’s children before the start of the holiest day of the year, and that Reb Zusha was exerting all his energies in trying to cancel Satan’s evil designs.

A yearning for teshuvah gripped the hearts of the devout chassidim, setting their souls afire. So overcome were they with a reverence for the greatness of their Creator that all at once there was not a dry eye among them.

Discerning blue streaks of mercy breaking through the black cloud of justice that had begun to dissipate, a revitalized Reb Zusha seized the moment to exclaim with intensity, “Ribbono Shel Olam, now is an auspicious time for self-reproach and repentance, yet I fear that I am too old and feeble to do proper teshuvah. I can but utilize the letters that comprise the word.

Taf begins the verse ‘Tamim tihyeh im Hashem Elokecha – always be whole with Hashem your God’; shin stands for ‘shivisi Hashem lenegdi tamid – have God before you always’; vav begins ‘veahavta es Hashem Elokecha – love your fellow as you do yourself’; bais is for ‘b’chol derachecha da’ehu – in all your ways know that there is a God’; and hei comes to teach ‘hatzneya leches im Hashem Elokecha – tread modestly, with humility, in the path of Hashem.

“Since with these mandates I have served you faithfully,” submitted Reb Zusha, “May I merit to be steered to proper teshuvah!”

That evening , when all were gathered in readiness for the Kol Nidrei service, Reb Zusha unexpectedly summoned one of the congregants to him for a brief tête-à-tête. The individual abruptly left to harness his horses, the Rebbe following close behind.

The congregants were baffled. What association had Reb Zushe with a commoner, and to where did he dash off at this inopportune time?

Reb Zushe returned shortly thereafter, his face shining and his beard glistening. The Kol Nidrei liturgy was conducted with extraordinary ardor.

The inquisitive chassidim subsequently discovered that Reb Zushe had asked to be taken to a well in the woods in which he immersed himself. When they tried to locate the site, they came away empty. No well – not even an indication of any well in the vicinity – was found.

Told of the remarkable occurrence, the Lubliner Rav enlightened his puzzled followers. Ever since the well of Miriam (which accompanied the Jewish nation on its trek through the desert) had vanished, it has been known to make fleeting, sporadic appearances in strategic spots on earth. Reb Zushe’s keen insight had alerted him to its presence nearby, and he had seized the moment and taken advantage of the exalted means to perform his ritual purification.

The mitzvah of teshuvah was first enacted on the First of Tishrei by the first human being. Adam, who sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, submersed himself in water up to his neck and thus pleaded with God to grant him forgiveness. He emerged only when his Creator extended His right hand to signal His acceptance of Adam’s teshuvah.

* * *

Reb Abish, a poverty-stricken chassid, never grumbled or bemoaned his sorry state. Reb Abish Chassid, as he was known, happily accepted his lot, the atmosphere in his home reflecting his contentment.

In complete contrast, Beryl the gevir (wealthy man) was plagued by many misgivings and was perpetually tormented by a sense of foreboding, always imagining the angel of death was stalking him. As a consequence, he was barely able to stand on his feet. To add to his woes, Reb Abish’s cheerful disposition irritated him no end.

The workweek would offer something of a distraction, but on Shabbos and holidays when they met in shul, the high spirits of Reb Abish the pauper would elicit strong negative feelings in Beryl.

The gevir‘s affluence, it must be said, lent him much credibility and earned him the people’s respect. As such, Beryl’s disdain of Reb Abish influenced others to denigrate the hapless chassid – so much so that when Sukkos came around and Reb Abish was in need of wood to build his sukkah, there was suddenly none to be had.

Reb Abish turned to the only One he could confide in. “Even if I am meant not to have my own sukkah, I will not, chas v’shalom, be remiss about eating in one. Undoubtedly, good people will welcome me into theirs.”

Beryl had ascertained the chassid’s mindset and ensured that Reb Abish would not find a place in anyone’s sukkah. The gevir furthermore issued an ultimatum to his perceived adversary: Wipe the smile off your face or leave town.

If I would fail to serve my Creator with simcha, what sort of chassid would I be, thought Reb Abish. Especially when we are specifically told “vesamachta bechagecha” – to rejoice in the holiday of Sukkos.

Lost in his thoughts, Reb Abish wandered the streets until he inadvertently came upon the local cemetery. The caretaker/mortician did not count himself as a devotee of the gevir, knowing all too well that despite Beryl’s wealth, he would one day end up the same as everyone else – in his hands, so to speak.

Mindful of Beryl’s malicious intent, the graveyard keeper, who kept a supply of wooden boards on hand for the eventuality that a casket would suddenly be called for, sympathetically assured the pious one that the wood he required for building his sukkah would soon be his.

Returning home, Reb Abish beheld a pile of wooden planks in his yard. As it happened, each slat was engraved with an inscription that denoted “Herein lies…” – to be filled in with the name of the person who would be laid to rest within its confines.

A newly adrenalized Reb Abish set about erecting his sukkah, securing the boards in place – with their lettering facing outward.

Rejuvenated by the mere thought of having deprived the chassid of a sukkah, the gevir ventured out for a stroll on the first day of Sukkos – but his uncharacteristic buoyancy was short-lived. An incensed Beryl recognized the joyous sound of singing to be none other but the voice of Reb Abish Chassid.

How dare the pauper be so lighthearted and jolly while he, a prosperous man of distinction, was so wretchedly miserable! The gevir was also perturbed that his orders were disobeyed, that Reb Abish had been provided with the goods he required for building a sukkah.

Without as much as a Yom Tov greeting, Beryl entered the sukkah of the man he so detested and demanded to know the identity of his benefactor. The sukkah’s owner warmly welcomed his unexpected guest and pointed to the lettering on the wall’s exterior. Beryl became paralyzed with fear – it was as though the Malach Hamoves, the Angel of Death, was standing before him.

Reb Abish Chassid seized the moment.

“Walking the streets, engrossed in my dilemma of how I would obtain the wood I needed for a sukkah, I chanced upon the Malach Hamoves. When I asked him what had brought him into town, he answered that he was on a mission to exact retribution from Beryl the gevir for his behavior toward an impoverished man whose only ‘sin’ is that he has faith in Hashem and serves Him with joy. ‘No wonder the gevir is so embittered…he doesn’t have Hashem in his heart. Me, I make no distinction between rich or poor. . . .’ ”

Beryl’s teeth began chattering. “But I’m still here,” he managed to say. “Of course you are!” replied Reb Abish. “I insisted that I had no desire to see another punished on my account; if I suffer, it is due to the will of Hashem, for everything comes from Him. I further argued that if the gevir were to be taken from us, what would happen to those who sustained a livelihood through him? Besides, if he is a rasha, an evil man, then according to our Sages, he is already as good as dead.

“The Malach Hamoves reiterated that he had come to avenge my pain and that if I truly felt this way, he would suspend his mission. Well, since it was me he had wanted to appease, I dared ask if he could perchance furnish me with the wood I needed to erect a kosher sukkah. He happily obliged, being that he had the right connection.”

Hence did Reb Abish prevail upon Beryl to bury the hatchet and abolish the hatred in his heart, “seeing that our Almighty God forsakes no one.” Taking his antagonist by the hand, the chassid led the gevir in a spirited dance. “Vesamchta bechagecha vehoyissa ach sameach…”

A sense of balance is vital to Libra’s wellbeing. The tendency to be brusque can easily be forgiven in light of Libra’s relentless pursuit of justice, peace and harmony.

Beryl the gevir could actually feel the gloom lifting from him, as a sense of exhilaration and emunah in his Maker replaced the dreadful fright that had earlier washed over him.

Rachel Weiss

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/heavenly-grace-seizing-the-moment/2007/09/11/

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