March 7, 2002
The Miracle of Charity
Parshat Vayakel-Pekuday (Exodus 35:1-40:38)
As we exit Purim and enter into Passover, we find ourselves in the season of redemption. In the words of the Talmud, we are ben geulah ligeulah (between redemptions).
There are many similarities in the stories of Purim and Pesach. Both find our people struggling for their survival and both have a miraculous and heartening culmination. Even in their practice, both have charity central to their celebration. On Purim, we have the mitzvah of matanot la evyonim -- a gift to (at least) two poor people; on Pesach, we have maot chitim -- the donation of funds for the purchase of matzah and other Passover staples for those in need.
Why is this so? Why are these two holidays singled out as times of tzedakah (charitable giving)? Why did the rabbis find it necessary to institutionalize the charity as central to the holiday and not let the general biblical obligation of tzedakah carry the day?
Our tradition teaches us that charity saves one from death. The Talmud relates that an astrologist had taunted Rabbi Akiva that his daughter would not survive to see her wedding day. Akiva brushed his words aside, but remained agitated nonetheless. Many years later, as Akiva and his family celebrated his only daughter's wedding, he heard a scream from the front door. The bride stood in the door with a dead rattlesnake on the tip of her long hair pin.
Remembering his encounter of many years ago, Akiva asked his daughter to relate the day's events to him. She said that a beggar had come to the door. "Everyone was celebrating and did not notice the poor man," she said. "I opened the front door with my hairpin in my hand. I placed my hairpin in the crack in the stone wall and retreated to the kitchen to bring him some food. Later, when I removed the pin, this dead snake was on its tip." (Shabbos 156b)
That charity saves from death is not a nice idea, but a literal one. It is not reserved for talmudic stories but affects our lives, too. My sister, Marcy, just called from Israel telling me God had saved her community of Efrat from devastation. Louis Davis was an American- success story and retired at a young age to Israel with his family. Davis wanted to breath its air, study Torah and help the people. He was known as "The Chesed Man."
Earlier this month, as all were rushing to prepare for Shabbat, an elderly woman asked Davis for a ride home from the supermarket, and she knew he was always a man she could ask. Davis told her to finish her shopping and he would pull the car around to the front. Heading toward his car, he greeted an Arab contractor who had just completed Davis' home. Strangely, his friend did not return the greeting. Brushing it off, Davis pulled in front of the store only to find the very same Arab pacing to and fro in a nervous fashion.
Davis then realized that the man was wearing a trench coat. His heart began racing as the man headed toward the supermarket's doors. With Davis following close behind, the man entered the bread aisle and began loosening his coat. Davis heard a small pop as the man tried to detonate himself. Davis drew his revolver and killed the bomber before the chain reaction of explosives blew up.
Imagine the tragedy and the number of dead had Davis not responded. Imagine the pain had Davis not offered to wait out in front until the elderly woman had finished her shopping.
That charity saves from death is literal, not figurative. Akiva's daughter and the community of Efrat learned this lesson in a very personal way. Her cards, if you will, and perhaps those of Efrat as well, were destined for tragedy, but charity shuffled the deck.
Please purchase some heavenly life insurance and give charity. Please help so everyone can celebrate Passover with more than matzah. The life you may be saving may be your own.