Can we help?


My desk is coated with letters of request: Adopt an animal at the zoo; come to a gala for the Jewish food bank; plant a tree in Israel; plant a tree in Los Angeles. Feed 50 meals to homeless people. Support public radio. Support the temple building fund. Support the school PTA, the booster club, the play. Need I go on?

These bids for help come in every year at about this time, but this year they feel different. We all are facing the reality that these are really hard times — for everyone, it seems — and there’s a note of desperation in these letters, a fear of becoming destitute. In fact, it’s probably a feeling most of us share to some degree, whether when we look at our 401(k)s (don’t!), or hear from our relatives (do!), or watch friends figure out how to get unemployment checks … or talk to someone who has lost their home to foreclosure.

So this year, all those pleas for funds have to be weighed against our anxieties. And the nagging question inside us must be: Should we hold back on our giving because what we have now might not last? And when we give, whom should we give to? Who are the neediest?

In his recently released “A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 2: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself,” (Bell Tower), Rabbi Joseph Telushkin quotes the familiar talmudic teaching: “Charity is equal in importance to all the other commandments combined.” (Bava Bathra 9a). But Telushkin also goes on to quote Maimonides: “It is our duty to be more careful in the performance of charity than in the performance of any other positive commandment.” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:1).

In our era, Telushkin points out, we equate charitable giving to cultural causes — museums, orchestras, universities — as much as to helping the poor. But it is the latter that the Bible refers to exclusively in the teachings on tzedakah. For a person in need, the Bible commands, “You shall open, yes, open, your hand to him,” and not “harden your heart nor shut your hand against your needy brother” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8). And the need for such generosity is so drilled into the Jewish soul that, as Telushkin paraphrases Maimonides, “Not giving tzedakah constitutes such cruel and un-Jewish behavior that we should question the Jewishness of one who acts in this way.”



The Shulchan Arukh assures us: “No person will become poor because of giving charity.”



So does this mean the art museum is out and the homeless shelter is this year’s beneficiary? That the temple coffers come before the school or after? What do we value most? And should we really decide? Because as we open our checkbooks this year and attempt to give back to the world, shouldn’t we consider sustenance from all angles?

High on our list, of course, should be those whose very lives depend upon our help. But this also is not a time to extinguish the many institutions that have risen up to create a civil society. The arts nourish the soul, schools nurture the potential of our youth, but they also promote the scientific and creative research that will secure our future. And the synagogue is one place where we can turn when we need caring most.

Our relationship with Israel also cannot be lost in the mix — its need for health and security doesn’t disappear while our attention is focused elsewhere.

And those animals in the zoo — should they be left out?

To be fair, aren’t times of hardship when we should be giving the most? And not just to one place?

I have a friend who runs an institute for the deaf — a place that gives the gift of communication to people who might otherwise be cut off from the world. She recently told me of a single day in the life of her institute: A check for $1 million came in from a major donor. Cause for great celebration. Then a look at the endowment showed a $1 million loss — just that same day. What do you do?

As the articles in this special Giving Guide illustrate, everyone is trying to answer all the questions I’m proposing here. And there are no easy answers.

But I would suggest this. This is the time to step up to the plate. And there are ways to do it even as we tighten our belts. We can think hard before we buy that fancy pair of shoes and get something more practical; then take that extra money left over — and give it away. Think again before we allocate fun money and find ways to share the pleasures with those who haven’t got the spare cash. We can take the bus once in a while and spend the gas savings on a person in need. Even small economies can turn into great gifts.

This is a time when, at whatever level we can, we should all continue to respond to the pleas for help from charities of all kinds — and give to our capacity, and maybe a little more. Because, as the Shulchan Arukh assures us, and as Telushkin notes, “No person will become poor because of giving charity.”

Moving beyond charity


One of the biggest misnomers in the Jewish vocabulary is the translation of tzedakah as “charity.” This mistranslation has gone on for so long in the American< Jewish community that it's a hard habit to break. Most Hebrew school kids will give this answer when asked, much as they will say that mitzvah means "good deed" (another misnomer, for another column).

Tzedakah is much more than charity since it comes from the word tzedek, which means “justice.” When looked at in this light, the giving of tzedakah is so much more than charity; charity seems to indicate something we give voluntarily and only to those who are less fortunate than we. Tzedakah, while it might come in the form of monetary giving, is a commandment that calls us to a much more profound level of interaction with the world than just writing a check to a worthy organization.

Don’t get me wrong — there is nothing wrong with writing checks. It’s just that this is not the end of — nor the essence of — tzedakah. Rather, as a commentator reminds us in regard to this week’s parshah, Shoftim, tzedakah is intimately connected to creating a meaningful and just legal system.

This parshah is the call to justice par excellence in the Torah, for it includes the famous verse, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (justice, justice you shall pursue), which, according to Chasidic master Simcha Bunem, reminds us that justice is to be pursued by just means, unlike many of the false, doublespeak pursuits of justice that we have witnessed throughout history (and in our own day, where so-called justice is pursued for selfish ends).

But I am most interested in the opening line, where the Torah calls on us to “appoint judges and magistrates in all our gates, the places that God gives to you, and you shall judge the people with righteous justice (mishpat tzedek)” (Deuteronomy 16:18).

What does “righteous justice” mean?

Commenting on this verse, the great 19th century master, Chatam Sofer, says it relates to a verse from the prophet Hosea, “v’erastich li b’tzedek uv’mishpat, uv’chesed uv’rachamim,” a line about God betrothing us with justice (tzedek), law (mishpat), kindness (chesed) and compassion (rachamim), which we say while putting on tefillin in the morning. According to a midrash, God provides the world with kindness and compassion, and we provide justice and law, thereby creating a balanced and holy alliance. It’s a tangible and beautiful way of conceptualizing the covenant between divinity and humanity. Chatam Sofer goes on to say that “God gives us space to create homes, societies and communities, out of love and compassion, and it is up to us to create them with justice and righteousness, by creating laws that are fair and just for all members.”

This is the true meaning of tzedakah: not charity, but justice.

And in a fascinating connection, another commentator, in the 20th century collection of teachings Likutei Yehudah, says that it is precisely for this reason that Shoftim follows last week’s parshah, Re’eh, which mentions the mitzvah of tzedakah; without justice, there is no tzedakah, and without tzedakah, there is no justice. This is a powerful and profoundly relevant teaching for our time.

In envisioning a world where the interaction between justice and tzedakah is a reality, we are blessed in today’s age to have amazing organizations in our community, like the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which has helped to redefine what giving means. Not only do they collect money, but they distribute it in a way that helps people achieve sustainable development; they bring people — young people especially — to work in developing nations, offering participants a firsthand look at true poverty and a hands-on way to help alleviate it. They seek to reshape the global landscape with just solutions for systemic problems. AJWS and its volunteers do this because the Torah calls on us to be just in our ways. They are living the words of the Chatam Sofer, leading us in our part of the covenant.

I believe that our nation as a whole can learn a great deal from AJWS, as we seek to recapture a sense of justice and righteousness in our country, for one could argue that we are taking God’s compassion and kindness for granted.

Mishpat tzedek, just laws, must seek ways to be as inclusive as possible, bringing people together, not tearing them apart. Until we work together as a human family to guarantee tzedek — true justice and not just charity — we will not be fully living up to the potential that Parshat Shoftim calls us towards. Americans are a very generous people in regard to charity, and Jewish Americans especially. Let us turn our efforts now with as much vigor toward justice, fashioning an even more holy society based on mishpat tzedek, the great confluence of law and righteousness. True tzedakah can change our world in a way that charity alone cannot.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (www.pjtc.net). He also serves as national secretary of Brit Tzedek V’shalom, corresponding secretary of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and on the board of Jewish World Watch. He welcomes your comments at rabbijoshua@pjtc.net.

Power of Words


Each night before retiring, the great Chasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav would make a list. At the end of a long day, he would write down all the wrongs he had committed — against other people, against God, against himself. Nachman would read the list over and over again, with increasing levels of agitation and remorse, until he welled up with sorrow.

In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are encouraged — commanded really — to write something down. Upon crossing the Jordan River and entering the land of Israel, the people are to “set up great stones, and coat them with plaster. You shall write on them all the words of this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 27:2-3). The commandment seems clear enough: to convey a message in writing. Yet generations of debates have ensued over what words, exactly, were to be inscribed on those stones. Was it the entire text of the Torah — what we call the five books of Moses? Or, was it just a list of mitzvot (commandments), which encompass the legal aspects of the Bible? Or perhaps these stones simply reiterated the Ten Commandments, and that was the “Torah” spoken of in the verse. What was on these stones?

The answer to this question remains a mystery. We don’t know for certain what words were inscribed. But we know something was written. In the end, what is meaningful was not what they wrote, but that they wrote. Immediately upon arriving in the land — after 40 years of desert wandering — the Israelites took the time to record something. They created a monument with words — words perhaps recounting their history, their trials, their legal system, their beliefs, their collective wisdom.

For us, this is a season of building monuments with our words. Throughout this month of Elul that precedes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, our tradition invites us to think, in detail and with brutal honesty, about ourselves. We are encouraged to devote these days to a cheshbon ha’nefesh (inventory of the soul) in which we evaluate our behavior over the last year and humbly seek to make improvements.

During these days before the New Year, we — like the Israelites who were at a dramatic, transitional moment — also stand at the edge of a precipice. The work of looking deeply within can be terribly dangerous. The liturgy of the High Holidays suggests three possible ways to best approach the challenges of this season: through tefillah (prayer), tzedakah (righteous works) and teshuvah (repentance). In other words, the liturgy teaches us to do a cheshbon ha’nefesh by turning in three different directions: turning upward (to God, in prayer), outward (to others, in acts of righteousness), and inward (to ourselves, in contemplation and improvement).

Each of these turnings — containing the power to make radical change — is done with words. The Israelites at the Jordan River also understood this. As they literally walked out of their old existence and into a new one, they marked their transition with words. And God commanded that their enormous change be accompanied by words not just spoken, but written. Once the wisdom was inscribed, it somehow seemed that much more real.

When Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav sat considering his own behavior, he, too, opted to go even further than the spoken word. He, too wrote down the inventory of what he might alter in himself. Why? Why not just stop at speaking the words? It is said that after repeatedly reading the list, he felt such great sorrow that he started to weep. The teardrops would fall upon the written words, and actually blur them beyond distinction. By reading the words he had written, he moved himself to the depths of emotion that might affect real change in the days to come. Perhaps this is the truest meaning of the phrase of greeting we use on Rosh Hashanah: Shanah tovah tikatevu: May you be inscribed — and may you inscribe yourself — for a good and sweet new year.

This column originally appeared Sept. 15, 2000.

Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer is founder and facilitator of Ozreinu, a spiritual support group for parents of special-needs children. She can be reached by e-mail at ozreinu@yahoo.com.

 

 

 

 

For the Kids


Good for you

In Ki Tetze, we are given many mitzvot to do — 613, actually. What’s a mitzvah? A commandment to do a good deed, or to follow directions to perform a certain ritual. As a Jew, it isimportant to do both. We become role models for the world in our acts of charity, and we remember who we are and where we came from through our ritual.

Munich Memorial

As the 2004 Olympics draw to a close, it is ourhope that the whole world will rememberthe 11 Israeli athletes who died during the1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany.They were kidnapped and killedby a Palestinian group calledBlack September.

For the Kids


Being Green

Do you have a backyard? Is it green and full of flowers and trees?
In Matot-Masei, we learn that God believes green space is an absolute necessity. God tells the Israelites: “Set aside some of your land for the Levites, so they can build towns. Make sure that there is lots of pasture surrounding the town. No one may build in the area that has been assigned for green.”
It is God’s commandment for us to keep the spaces around our homes green. So, let’s keep it clean and let’s keep it green!

Summer Scramble

Until July 18, there will be an HIBXETI at the KIBLLASR Cultural Center about EJSW in ancient YPGTE. If you go there on July 17, you can also participate in an HEOCALARCLOGI dig.
Solve the scramble and visit there this weekend! And even if you don’t make it, send in the answers to abbygilad@yahoo.com for a prize.

Torah Portion


Deeply ingrained ideas die hard. This week’sparasha,however, helps to ring the death knell for one such idea. Many of ushave been trained to believe that the Torah’s commandments can bebroken down into two basic categories. These re: the mitzvot we do for God and themitzvot we do for the benefit of fellow human beings. The kosherlaws, for example, would belong to the former category, and the lawsregarding the returning of lost items, for example, would belong tothe latter. This classification system may be neat and clean, but itis also inaccurate and it distorts one of Judaism’s most importantmessages.Evidence that the system is inaccurate permeatesthis week’s portion. Consider, for instance, this week’s presentationof Shabbat. Although Shabbat is thought to be a classic example ofmitzvah that we do for God, you would never get that idea bylistening to the Torah reading this week. Rather, you would hear,”…on the seventh day, you shall rest so that your ox and donkey mayhave rest, and so that the son of the handmaid and the stranger maybe refreshed.” Shabbat is here a labor law, ensuring proper treatmentof those who work for us, rather than the more familiar “remember thecreation” law that was presented in the Ten Commandments.

Similarly, the explanation given this week for notharvesting crop in the Sabbatical year (shmita) is not the morefamiliar “it is a Sabbatical year unto the Lord”; rather, it is “sothat the poor of thy people may eat [it].” Shmita has an unmistakablesocial-welfare component to it.

Conversely, many mitzvot that we generally assumewe are doing for the benefit of fellow human beings, are presented inthe Torah as mitzvot we do for God. We are directed, for example, touse only honest weights and measures. To be certain, part of theconcern is to prevent others from being cheated. But equallyimportant (see Leviticus 19:36) is the desecration of God’s name,which would result from one of His children behaving in a crookedmanner. Similarly, the commandment that epitomizes Judaism’sinterpersonal ethic — “You should love your neighbor as yourself” –is explained by the late Nehama Leibowitz as being the command torecognize that God created all people, and, therefore, they deserveto be treated accordingly. Of course, this mitzvah benefits thepeople around us, and human society at large. But it is alsoinextricably intertwined with our relationship with, and beliefsabout, God.

The message of all this, I believe, is clear: TheTorah’s mitzvot defy the neat categories of “for people” and “forGod.” Performance of a “for God” mitzvah, such as eating matzo orobserving Shabbat or attending prayer services, that does not have a”for people” component to it is an incomplete performance. There isalways a way to be sure that the mitzvah we are engaged in will bringbenefit to the people around us. Similarly, any performance of a “forpeople” mitzvah that does not animate our feelings for God, that doesnot reinforce and strengthen our commitment to our covenant with God,is also an incomplete mitzvah. In extending a hand to people, weshould feel ourselves to simultaneously be taking a step towardGod.

This insight about the nature of mitzvot, and thenature of God’s will for us, has important implications forcontemporary Jewish life. It is not valid to shut oneself into “thefour cubits of the study hall” and be unconcerned with the materialand spiritual welfare of the larger community — Jewish as well asnon-Jewish. There is no such concept as mitzvot “for Godonly.”

The same can be said concerning behaving ethicallysolely for the sake of behaving ethically. Surely, there is greatmerit to it. But it cannot be equated with the performance ofmitzvah. The moments of our greatest moral accomplishment, themoments of our most compassionate embrace of less fortunate humanbeings, need also to be moments that we sense God’s satisfaction withus.

The concept of mitzvah is enjoying a well-deservedappreciation in these days of general spiritual striving. This week’sTorah reading gives us an even deeper appreciation of its complexityand wonder.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’naiDavid-Judea in Los Angeles.

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