Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 172

August 11, 2023 (24 Av 5783)

Learning from Leor

Dear Friends,

hope this correspondence finds you well and still enjoying the summer. Please join us this Saturday morning at 10:15am for in-person Shabbat services, which will take place in our beautiful sanctuary. Amazingly, our numbers continue to grow, so we encourage you to come early and join us for an uplifting, prayerful, and immersive learning experience. Please feel free to bring your friends and neighbors, so they can also discover why more and more people are deciding to spend their Shabbat mornings with us.

As we have been navigating the beginnings of the Book of Devarim, I have commented on Moshe’s startling rerouting of the theological and cultic-centered biblical Judaism, to the creation of an idealized social construct, based on divinely inspired ethical paradigms. One could argue that this week’s command of Tzedaka, meaning both justice and charity, is the ultimate example of social responsibility. The text in Re’eh, Deuteronomy 15:7-8 reads:

כִּֽי־יִהְיֶה֩ בְךָ֨ אֶבְי֜וֹן מֵאַחַ֤ד אַחֶ֙יךָ֙ בְּאַחַ֣ד שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ בְּאַ֨רְצְךָ֔ אֲשֶׁר־יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֣ן לָ֑ךְ לֹ֧א תְאַמֵּ֣ץ אֶת־לְבָבְךָ֗ וְלֹ֤א תִקְפֹּץ֙ אֶת־יָ֣דְךָ֔ מֵאָחִ֖יךָ הָאֶבְיֽוֹן׃

If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kin in any of your settlements in the land that your God יהוה is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin.

כִּֽי־פָתֹ֧חַ תִּפְתַּ֛ח אֶת־יָדְךָ֖ ל֑וֹ וְהַעֲבֵט֙ תַּעֲבִיטֶ֔נּוּ דֵּ֚י מַחְסֹר֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יֶחְסַ֖ר לֽוֹ׃

Rather, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need.

Clearly, generosity toward those in need is commanded by God as one way to honor Him as creator of all people and to honor His image, especially when interacting with the poor and needy. In fact, withholding aid is considered a grievous sin. Ezekiel 16:49 records, "Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy." Conversely, in Proverbs, the author declares, "He who is generous to the needy honors [his Maker]." (Proverbs 14:31)

Nonetheless, this arguably logical command requires a propagative emotion, not naturally attained, before the action itself. The tradition suggests that empathy precedes giving. In the text, לֹ֧א תְאַמֵּ֣ץ אֶת־לְבָבְךָ֗, softening one’s heart (not always a reflexive, nor autonomic response) is a precursor for the Mitzvah.

Allow me to share two real stories.

When I first arrived in Fair Lawn, I became accustomed to folks who knocked on the door in the middle of the day, typically two to three times each week. These people were requesting money for one charity or another. Many had an “official” beggar’s certificate, which they insisted on providing. Whether signed by the Rabbinate in Israel, or a local Dayan (rabbinic judge) of the community, each of these individuals assured me of their authenticity. While many of my local neighbors were skeptical (after all, if the petitioners were so desolate, how did they travel here from Israel and rent a van from Brooklyn to collect money?), I happily gave away any cash that I had collected, often from having performed a Bris or other life-cycle event. Each collector, incidentally, was always invited into the house to have a seat and a cup of tea or coffee.

Over the years, as the economy tightened and, as I was no longer “simply” paying three day-school tuitions, but was now additionally burdened with college tuitions, the folks continued to flow to my porch. I was often rebuked by collectors who noted, “Rabbi Wasser, this is only $100 and last year you gave us $180.00.” One gentleman, I recall, said he had 11 children and that he needed money for his Yeshiva tuition. I was tempted by my Yetzer HaRa (evil inclination) to swap schooling bills with him, just for purposes of comparison.

I continued to give, albeit not as much. As the amount of my donations diminished, the knocks on the door became more sporadic and then one day there was a final knock.

On that day, I had no cash. The bearded-man, complete with Tzitzit and Payis, seemed alarmed that I was not flush with bills. Quickly pivoting, he asked for a check. My wife had taken the checkbook to work.

He then saw a Tzedakah box on the mantle in the living room and somewhat aggressively suggested I empty all the coin currency into his outstretched hand. Thereafter, he asked me to see if there was loose change anywhere else in the house that I could immediately gather for his charitable causes.

Honestly, on that occasion, the entire experience felt violating and degrading. I was shocked he didn’t ask if I had Zell or Venmo. I experienced no holiness, no uplift, no sense of fulfillment, but rather, I could coldly feel my patience wane and my heart harden.

In contradistinction to my learned reaction, I share the true story of Leor, my middle daughter. From an early age, Leor’s eyes radiated a genuine and complete sense of altruistic empathy. I have pictures from her childhood, wherein Leor’s eyes literally pierce through the photo radiating care, compassion, and concern. There was something about her Neshama (soul) that was truly different. Her soul was completely pure, and even perhaps, holy. Years later, we moved to New Jersey. Like any recent transplants, we often crawled our way across the backed-up GW bridge to take in the wonder of Manhattan’s bustling city center. While most youngsters would have been completely mesmerized by the stories-high electronic billboards for Hershey’s M&Ms and various musical productions, Leor’s eyes and heart were clearly focused elsewhere. Instinctively, she gravitated towards the homeless lining the sidewalks of Midtown. For years, each time Leor was in the City, she always brought with her a few dollars to share with those who were less fortunate. This was not done at the behest of her parents, but rather, it represented her natural response to the human condition. Today, Leor continues to help others as an act of Tzedaka through donations of cash, participating in an annual suicide prevention program called “Walking Through the Darkness,” and focusing her professional talents as a social worker, working therapeutically with domestic violence victims.

As we will learn during our “fireside chat” this Shabbat, the Mitzvah of Tzedaka can come in many forms. Whether through acts of kindness, pledging financial resources, sharing our time, or giving in other ways, I would suggest that we can all learn from Leor’s example of ongoing empathy and compassion. I know that I have.

May that indeed, be Hashem’s will.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD, Hon.DM
Tel: 201-562-5277

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