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January 18, 2017 / 20 Tevet, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘stories’

Stories To Light Up The Dark Winter

Friday, December 23rd, 2016

This may be Rabbi Paysach Krohn’s best “Maggid” book. As one reads story after story (it is almost impossible to put it down, so know that you may become sleep deprived), one becomes entranced in the episode, spellbound by his choice of expression and captivated by the penetrating lesson inherent in each story.

With the book coming out just a few weeks before Chanukah, the story about Rav Shraga Shmuel Schnitzler (later known as the Tzchaber Rov) in Bergen Belsen is not only timely but breathtaking. It should be told after the candles are lit this year so that all get an appreciation of the freedom we have and the mesiras nefesh our ancestors had in the most difficult times. Incredibly the Satmar Rebbe unknowingly becomes an integral part of the story.

The delightful story of Rabbi Moshe Tuvia Leiff on an El-Al flight will make everyone smile. The story “Grandfather of Grandeur” is almost unimaginable except that Rabbi Krohn, as he most often does, spoke to the people involved. It is a lesson on forgiveness on the highest levels. The ehrlichkeit of a young man in Detroit, Yaakov Meir Roberg, becomes apparent as he returns a bike he bought in Michigan to a college student in Montana. It becomes an incredible kiddush Hashem.

It is known that Rabbi Krohn travels to many countries where he lectures and gives tours. Over the years, thousands have benefited from these tours and tens of thousands have gained from his memorable speeches. In this book, his ninth Maggid book, he takes us along for the ride. You will experience the gut wrenching graveside of the children in Tarnov, Poland, you will be amazed as you are on a fascinating Shmittah farm in Israel; that story is cleverly entitled, “The Holy Rest Stop.” You will shake your head in astonishment at an incident in a slum along a highway in Brazil, you will be thrilled in Hamilton, Ontario, moved in Manchester, mesmerized in Miami and absolutely stunned by Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog’s visit to Chicago in 1946. A well-known Torah personality who witnessed it had his life redirected because of Rav Herzog, Read the book to find out who this great person is and you will understand his unrelenting drive to accomplish throughout his life. Okay, I’ll tell you, it’s Rabbi Berel Wein.

Rabbi Krohn is a deeply emotional person and this comes through in his dedication of the book to three sterling Teachers of Torah who all passed away this year. Rav Arye Finkel, one of the Roshei Yeshiva in Mir (Israel), Rav Moshe Mordechai Chodosh, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Ohr Elchonon in Jerusalem, and Rabbi Avrohom Respler who was in chinuch for more than fifty years as both Rebbe and menahel of Yeshivas Toras Emes in Brooklyn.

Perhaps, though, the most startling story is the one that Rabbi Krohn tells about himself. He was only 21 when his father Rabbi Avrohom Zelig Krohn, z’l, passed away. He had to leave the yeshiva, and support his mother and younger siblings. He had learned milah from his father and wished to continue his father’s practice in some of the Queens hospitals where his father had been appointed. In the 1960’s many brissen were still being done in hospitals, as there was a bris room separated by a glass partition so the visitors could see the proceedings but still not be close to the infant. Some hospitals even had an assigned caterer for the event. Rabbi Krohn had to get onto the staff of those hospitals his father had been in, in order to support his family. Others tried to thwart him.

Through the efforts of Mr. Chaim Israel, Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote a long, hand written letter, extolling the virtues of Rabbi Krohn, his revered father and their family. You must read the letter to gain an appreciation of how a gadol hador takes the time to write a long letter on behalf of a yossom, almanah and their family.

Go out and get the book. It’s a great investment in Ahavas Hashem, Ahavas Hatorah and Ahavas Yisroel. And oh do we need all three today!

Ezra Banner

What Is The Theme Of The Stories Of Genesis?

Thursday, December 22nd, 2016

One of the most fundamental questions about the Torah turns out to be one of the hardest to answer. What, from the call of God to Abraham in Genesis 12 to the death of Joseph in Genesis 50, is the basic religious principle being taught? What does the entire set of stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives, together with Jacob’s sons and daughter, actually tell us? Abraham brought monotheism to a world that had forgotten it, but where do we see this in the actual text of the Torah itself?

Here is the problem. The first eleven chapters of Genesis teach us many fundamentals of faith: that God brought the universe into being and declared it good; that God made the human person in His image; that God gave us freedom and thus the ability to do not only good but also bad; that the good is rewarded, the bad punished and that we are morally responsible for our actions. Chapters 8 and 9 also tell us that God made a covenant with Noah and through him with all humanity.

It is equally easy to say what the rest of the Torah, from Exodus to Deuteronomy, teach us: that God rescued the Israelites from slavery, setting them on the road to freedom and the Promised Land; that God made a covenant with the people as a whole on Mount Sinai, with its 613 commands and its purpose, to establish Israel as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. In short, Genesis 1-11 is about creation. Exodus to Deuteronomy is about revelation and redemption. But what are Genesis 12-50 about?

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all recognize God. But so do non-Jews like Malkizedek, Abraham’s contemporary, described as “priest of God most high” (14:18). So even does the Pharaoh of Joseph’s day, who says about him, ‘Can there be another person who has God’s spirit in him as this man does?’ (41:38). God speaks to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but He does likewise to Avimelech king of Gerar (Gen. 20:3-7), and to Laban (31:24). So what is special about the patriarchs?

They seem to teach no new principle of faith. Other than childbirth and rescue from danger, God performs no world-transforming miracles through them. They deliver no prophecies to the people of their generation. Other than an ambiguous hint when the Torah says that Abraham took with him on his journey “the souls they had gathered” (12:5), which may refer to converts they had made, but may equally merely refer to their servants, they attracted no disciples. There is nothing explicit in the text that says they sought to persuade people of the truth of monotheism or that they did battle against idolatry. At most there is a story about how Rachel stole her father’s teraphim (31:19) which may or may not have been idols.

To be sure, a persistent theme of the patriarchal stories is the two promises God made to each of them, [1] that they would have many descendants and [2] they would inherit the land of Canaan. But God also makes promises to Ishmael and Esau, and the Torah seems to go out of its way to tell us that these promises were fulfilled for them before they were fulfilled for the children of the covenant (see Gen. 25:12-18 for the account of Ishmael’s children, and Gen. 36 for those of Esau). About Esau’s children, for example, it says, “These are the kings who ruled in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the Israelites” (36:31).

So the question is real and puzzling. What was different about the patriarchs? What new did they bring to the world? What difference did monotheism make in their day?

There is an answer but it is an unexpected one. One theme appears no less than six (possibly even seven) times. Whenever a member of the covenantal family leaves his or her own space and enters the wider world of their contemporaries, they encounter a world of sexual free-for-all.

Three times, Abraham (Gen. 12 and 20) and Isaac (Gen. 26) are forced to leave home because of famine. Twice they go to Gerar. Once Abraham goes to Egypt. On all three occasions the husband fears he will be killed so that the local ruler can take his wife into his harem. All three times they put forward the story that their wife is actually their sister. At worst this is a lie, at best a half-truth. In all three cases the local ruler (Pharaoh, Avimelekh), protests at their behavior when the truth becomes known. Clearly the fear of death was real or the patriarchs would not have been party to deception.

In the fourth case, Lot in Sodom (Gen. 19), the people cluster round Lot’s house demanding that he bring out his two visitors so that they can be raped. Lot offers them his virgin daughters instead. Only swift action by the visitors – angels – who smite the people with blindness, saves Lot and his family from violence.

In the fifth case (Gen. 34), Shechem, a local prince, rapes and abducts Dina when she “went out to visit some of the local girls.” He holds her hostage, causing Shimon and Levi to practice deception and bloodshed in the course of rescuing her.

Then comes a marginal case (Gen. 38), the story of Judah and Tamar, more complex than the others and not part of the overall pattern. Finally there is the sixth episode, in this week’s parsha, when Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce Joseph. Failing, she accuses him of rape and has him imprisoned.

In other words, there is a continuing theme in Genesis 12-50, a contrast between the people of the Abrahamic covenant and their neighbors, but it is not about idolatry, but rather about adultery, promiscuity, sexual license, seduction, rape and sexually motivated violence.

The patriarchal narrative is surprisingly close to the view of Freud, that eros is one of the two primal drives governing human behavior (the other is thanatos, the death instinct), and the view of at least one evolutionary psychologist (David Buss, in his books The Evolution of Desire and The Murderer Next Door) that sex is the main cause of violence amongst humans.

This gives us an entirely new way of thinking about Abrahamic faith. Emunah, the Hebrew word normally translated as faith, does not mean what it is taken to mean in English: a body of dogma, a set of principles, or a cluster of beliefs often held on non-rational grounds. Emunah means faithfulness, loyalty, fidelity, honoring your commitments, doing what you said you would do and acting in such a way as to inspire trust. It has to do with relationships, first and foremost with marriage.

Sex belongs, for the Torah, within the context of marriage, and it is marriage that comes closest to the deep resonances of the biblical idea of covenant. A covenant is a mutual act of commitment in which two persons, honoring their differences, each respecting the dignity of the other, come together in a bond of love to join their destinies and chart a future together. When the prophets want to speak of the covenantal relationship between God and His people, they constantly use the metaphor of marriage.

The God of Abraham is the God of love and trust who does not impose His will by force or violence, but speaks gently to us, inviting an answering response of love and trust. Genesis’ argument against idolatry – all the more impressive for being told obliquely, through a series of stories and vignettes – is that it leads to a world in which the combination of unchecked sexual desire, the absence of a code of moral self-restraint, and the worship of power, leads eventually to violence and abuse.

That domestic violence and abuse still exist today, even among religious Jews, is a disgrace and source of shame. Against this stands the testimony of Genesis that faithfulness to God means and demands faithfulness to our marriage partners. Faith – whether between us and God or between us and our fellow humans – means love, loyalty and the circumcision of desire.

What the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs tell us is that faith is not proto- or pseudo-science, an explanation of why the natural universe is as it is. It is the language of relationships and the choreography of love. It is about the importance of the moral bond, in particular as it affects our most intimate relations. Sexuality matters to Judaism, not because it is puritanical but because it represents the love that brings new life into the world.

When a society loses faith, eventually it loses the very idea of a sexual ethic, and the result in the long term is violence and the exploitation of the powerless by the powerful. Women suffer. Children suffer. There is a breakdown of trust where it matters most. So it was in the days of the patriarchs. Sadly, so it is today. Judaism, by contrast, is the sanctification of relationship, the love between husband and wife which is as close as we will ever get to understanding God’s love for us.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Stories For Rosh Hashanah

Friday, September 23rd, 2016

Few people loved Bnei Yisrael as much as the great tzaddik, Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev. His very fiber and being was permeated with love for the Jewish people and every Jew’s pain was his own. As the Yomim Noraim approached, he would gather together all his strength and ability to plead the case of his beloved nation before the Throne of Mercy.

One Rosh Hashanah, Reb Levi Yitzchok heard the pitiful cries of a poor man who lived next to his shul. He listened and kept quiet. When the time came to blow the shofar, Reb Levi Yitzchak ascended the pulpit, donned the kittel, took the shofar in his hand and began to recite the prayer of “Lamenatzeach’’ seven times. The congregation repeated the prayer after him.

Suddenly, Reb Levi Yitzchok stopped and waited. The congregation waited silently for the rav to make the bracha and begin to blow the shofar. One hour passed, and nothing happened. The people began to fidget and some were clearly frightened.

Reb Levi Yitzchok then put aside the shofar and addressed the congregation.

“My friends,” he said, “outside of my window sits a man who has been in prison for many years. Because of it he knows very little Hebrew and nothing of prayers. Hearing us davening in this shul has made him very sad and in a crying voice he is pleading to Hashem, ‘Father in Heaven, you know that I can’t pray, although my heart longs for prayer. All I know are the 22 letters of the Jewish alphabet, which I do hereby repeat before you. Will you in your infinite mercy arrange these letters into the proper words of prayer?’

“Hashem is now busy arranging these letters into words. We will have to wait until He is ready to hear us.”

Forbidden On Shabbos

Still another time, Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbos and Reb Levi Yitzchok rose to proclaim: “Father in Heaven, according to Your own Torah, You are required to write a good decree for Your people, Your beloved children.”

The people looked at each other in amazement. What did he mean? Why was this Rosh Hashanah so special?

Reb Levi Yitzchok saw their puzzlement and explained as follows: “Today,” he said “is the holy day of Shabbos, when it is forbidden to write. Thus, even the Heavenly Court is forbidden to write today – except to save a life. That means writing an evil decree is forbidden – but a good one is permitted. To save a life it is permitted to write on Shabbos.”


The Price of Hair

One year on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, a young man training to be a barber passed by the home of Reb Levi Yitzchak. His head was uncovered, and his many wavy curls were carefully combed over his forehead.

Seeing him through the window, Reb Levi Yitzchak called him in and said: “Why do you grow your hair that way?”

“Because my job brings me in touch with many noblemen,” said the young man, “so I have to make myself look good.”

“Listen here. I’ll give you a gold ruble if you cut off those curls. After all, wearing your hair like the gentiles is against the commandment in the Torah – ‘You shall not walk in the way of their laws.’”

“No!” said the youth.

“Very well,” said the tzaddik, “then I will give you three rubles.” The youth did not agree – and still would not agree even when the offer reached 20 rubles.

“If you cut off your curls at once,” said Reb Levi Yitzchok, “I promise you a share in the World to Come.”

No sooner did the youth hear these words than his hand dived deep into his pocket for his scissors, and within seconds he had cut off his wavy curls.

“Master of the Universe!” exclaimed Reb Levi Yitzchak. “How strong is the faith of Your people, even the simplest among them! How many weary hours of work and trouble must such a young man go through to earn just one gold ruble! Why, 20 rubles is for him an undreamed-of fortune… And yet, what he was not willing to do for 20 gold rubles he did for a share in the World to Come, even though he has never laid eyes on it!”

The Heavy Load

It was the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The shul was crowded. Reb Levi Yitzchok himself was leading the congregation.

Reb Levi Yitzchok’s soft, vibrant voice touched the heartstrings of every worshipper. As he pronounced the words, his voice broke, and everyone’s heart was filled with remorse. Each pictured himself standing before the Judge of the Universe.

Reb Levi Yitzchok recited line after line of the solemn prayer, which the congregation repeated, until he came to the line: “To Him, Who acquires His servants in judgment…”

Here the Rebbe paused, for the words died on his lips. His tallis slid from his head, revealing his pale face; his eyes were shut, and he seemed to be in a trance.

A shudder passed through the congregation. A critical situation must have arisen in the Heavenly Court; things were not going well for the petitioners.

A few moments later, the color returned to Reb Levi Yitzchok’s face, which now became radiant with joy. His voice shook with ecstasy and triumph as he recited: “To Him, who acquires His servants in judgment!”

After the service, the Rebbe explained: “While we davened, I felt myself lifted up to the gates of heaven, where I saw the Satan carrying a heavy load. The sight filled me with anxiety, for I knew that he was carrying a bag full of sins to put onto the Scales of Justice before the Heavenly Court.

“For a moment the bag was left unattended, so I went to it and began to examine its contents. The bag was crammed with all kinds of sins: evil gossip, hatred without reason, jealousies, wasted time, which should have been spent in study of the Torah – ugly creatures of sins, big and small.

Rabbi Sholom Klass

The Internet, Halacha, and Olam HaBah

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

It’s simply not possible. I don’t believe it. Nonetheless it is being reported as fact. Rafi’s blog, Life in Israel, has linked to the Hebrew language website B’Chadrei Charedim that quotes Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s response to a question about smart-phones.

There is a Gemarah in Brachos that tells us that a man will lose his portion in Olam HaBah if he walks regularly behind a woman down a river. Rav Kanievsky was asked if this applies to someone who has in his possession an I-phone or the internet. His one word answer according to Chadrei was ‘ B’Vadai’ – absolutely! Anyone who uses an I-phone or the internet is in a category of losing his Olam HaBah – his heavenly reward in the world to come!

If this is true, then yet again, I think we all ought to all just go over to MacDonald’s and have a cheeseburger… or violate any other Miztvah in the Torah we want to violate. Why bother observing Halacha if you’ve lost your Olam Habah?

I happen to know Gedolei Torah and Roshei Yeshiva  who use I-phones and the internet. Are they all doomed?

Once again we have what appears to be a huge dis-connect between what a great Torah sage supposedly said – and reality. Either Rav Kanievsky does not know the extent of internet use among a great number of devoutly observant Jews, or this is a gross distortion or mischaracterization of his views. I think that both things are true. I don’t believe he said it and meant it to be interpreted as simply as that one word answer indicates.

I would not be surprised if this is yet another instance of Kanoim – religious zealots twisting the views of a elderly rabbinic leader to fit their agenda. I’m sure his position is far more nuanced than the one word answer (B’Vadai) he supposedly gave to a simple question.

The Agenda is obvious. There are people who are eager to destroy other Jews in a fit of self righteousness. They do not have these devices and do not want anyone else to have them either. So they make sure to twist the words of Gedolei Yisroel to assure it.

They may think they are doing the right thing. But they are by far doing far much more harm than good. They may in fact be responsible for pushing more religious Jews out of observance than saving them from using the internet.

By putting people who have smart-phones into a category of losing their Olam Habah, it is not too difficult to see many frustrated Frum people who have so often been put upon with comments like this say, ‘the heck with it!’ I may as well live a life of ease and not worry about violating Halacha. I won’t make to Olam HaBah anyway.

The Gemarah upon which this one word response attributed to Rav Kanievsky was based upon does not forbid the incidental following of a woman down a river. The loss of Olam Habah  that the Gemarah speaks of is only to those who purposely do so with lascivious thoughts and the intent to sin in that regard. And even then only if it is done on a regular basis.

I would add that even if someone regularly does things like that and has some sort of sexual addiction, he can get help… and do Teshuva. I find it very difficult to believe that the Gemarah’s intent is that someone loses his Olam HaBah permanently if he does that. It is also known that the Gemarah sometimes exaggerates to make a point. Which may be the case here.

If there is any comparison to be made between following a woman down a river and the world of the 21st century and the internet – it is in the area of purposely viewing pornography on it. The problem is not the internet. It is the websites one frequents… if those websites are pornographic. That is the comparison that Rav Kanievsky no doubt meant – if he said anything at all.  Accidentally accessing a pornographic website is not a cause for losing one’s Olam Habah.

But the Kanoim who publish stories like this do not want to be confused with the nuances of truth. They want convey the message that I-phones and any other device that can access the internet is so evil that one should not even touch it! For if they do, their Olam HaBah is at stake.

Harry Maryles

The Holocaust as an Expression of Kindness? Seriously?

Monday, August 5th, 2013

One of the things that never fails to upset me is when people of stature start trying to explain the Holocaust. There are some rabbinic figures who have tried to do so, both past and present. It seems like there is a new addition to those ranks in the person of Rabbi Avigdor Miller, a venerated Rabbinic personality of the 20th century.

I do not say this to disparage him. He is a man who garners tremendous respect from observant Jews from all walks of life. There are people who consider his Hashkafos about Judaism their guide to life. He has a wide following, perhaps greater today posthumously than when he was alive.

My introduction to Rabbi Avigdor Miller was when I read his book, Rejoice O’ Youth which was an unsuccessful attempt to refute the theory of evolution.  For many years that book angered me. But I have mellowed in that regard and now believe that he has every right to his views on that subject and to promote them in a book. Just as others do to refute it.

I recall also being upset at something I once read about him where he strongly disparaged Modern Orthodoxy. I will be Dan L’Kaf Zechus that he was not disparaging observant Jews that are modern but meticulous in their observance and respect the Mesorah. He was probably referring to those I like to call MO-Lites. Jews who are not so meticulous about their religious observances and are more assimilated into the culture than they are into their Judaism. Or those Modern Orthodox Jews that are on the extreme left and try to innovate practices that depart from the Mesorah.  Like Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) and Yeshivat Maharat.

According to an article in Mishpacha Magazine, his son, Rav Shmuel Miller, has published a book posthumously written by his father  that in my view is unconscionable. The thesis of the book is that the Holocaust was actually a Chesed… a kindness from God in the way of a wake-up call! It is called  ‘A Divine Madness’ – Rabbi Avigdor Miller’s Defense of HaShem in the Matter of the Holocaust.

Rabbi Avigdor Miller did not want to publish this work during his lifetime. He felt that so soon after the Holocaust it would upset survivors. His son has decided that enough time has passed and published it. Rabbi Avigdor Miller is certainly entitled to his views. But I am entitled to totally reject them.

He is not the first one to put forward the theory that the Holocaust happened because Jews were abandoning the Torah and observance in droves in the period prior to the Holocaust. But what is so upsetting about this particular thesis is that he considers the Holocaust a kindness. I understand his point. Which he tries to illustrate using an example once cited by the Chofetz Chaim as follows.

If someone is in the coldest region on Earth like the North Pole and falls asleep, he will freeze to death in short order. If someone is there next to him, he will try to wake him up from his slumber. If calling out to him, won’t work, he will shake him. If that doesn’t work he will smack him. If that doesn’t work, he will take a stick and hit him. An onlooker might see this as being cruel and not understand that he is trying to wake him up in order to save his life. In other words what looks like a cruelty to another human being – is actually a kindness meant to save his life.

This is such a bad analogy that it boggles my mind that it was even attempted let alone published in a book.

There are 6 million individual stories of savage slaughter that happened in the Holocaust. And that is just about Jews that were systematically killed. There could be as many as another six million stories about horrors experienced by survivors.

Just to cite 2 personal examples.

My father escaped the Nazi death camps by hiding in 3 different bunkers with other families until his city was liberated by the Russians.

When the first bunker was discovered, the escape route planned in such an eventuality via the town sewer system enabled an escape by my father and my 3 older brothers (who were in their early teens at the time). But my father’s first wife (my brothers’ mother) never made it. She was captured while trying to escape. The next bunker was a makeshift one in the forest. That too was discovered, but my oldest brother got caught while my father and his two younger sons escaped. My father heard his oldest son screaming as he was being carried off by the Gestapo.

My wife’s uncle was an Ish Tam – a Gerrer Chasid; kind and sincere; simple  and pure in his devotion to God. He had not an ounce of evil in his bones. He had a beautiful family – a wife and children – prior to the Holocaust. They were all slaughtered by the Nazis except for him. He was captured by the infamous Josef Menegle for purposes of medical experiments. That left him without family and sterile after the war… never able to rebuild his family. Although he did remarry and made Aliyah.  He was a truly good man who never questioned God.

You can multiply these two stories by the number of victims and survivors. How many stories like this and far worse have we all heard?!

If this is God’s Chesed, I’d like to know what it’s like when He gets angry! How dare anyone say that God decided to torture innocent people in order to wake us up? Rabbi Miller does not make understanding the Holocaust any easier. He makes it even more difficult to understand, in my view.

Many great rabbinic figures were slaughtered by the Nazis. It is said that the great people of any given generation are punished because they did not protest the increasing rejection of Mitzvah observance of their time. Even if that’s true, how can such inhumanity to the average Jew – innocent people who are not Gedolim – be explained?

How can anyone say that being tortured by the likes of Mengele is the same as being hit with a stick at the North Pole?! How can anyone say that forcing Jews to dig mass graves for themselves and then being shot into them is the same as being hit with a stick?! How can anyone one say that the millions of Jews marching into the ‘showers’ at Auschwitz and Buchenwald is the same as being hit with a stick. Such analogies are an insult to not only the six million who died, but to all the survivors and their children, of which I am one!

Wake up call?! How exactly did all the torture endured by survivors wake up all those who lost their faith after the Holocaust?

My negative attitude about the Satmar Rebbe is well known here becauseof his antipathy towards the State of Israel and his disparagement of Rav Kook. But there is one thing I do agree with him about. The Holocaust cannot be explained.  And all victims of the Holocaust including survivors have earned an automatic place in the world to come – even if they did not remain religious.
I therefore object in the strongest possible terms the publication a book which espouses the view that the Holocaust was a ‘wake-up’ call. His right to publish such opinions should not trump the hurt such views have upon survivors and their children.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah .

Harry Maryles

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

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/jewish-columns/rabbi-lord-jonathan-sacks/how-to-give/2013/08/01/

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