Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
Story #1 (Babylonian Talmud, Minachot 44a)
Once a man, who was very careful about the commandment of tzizit, heard about a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea who accepted four hundred gold coins for her hire. He sent her four hundred gold coins and appointed a day with her. When he came to her door the harlet’s maid told her, “The man who sent you four hundred gold coins is here and waiting at the door”; to which the harlot replied “Let him come in”.
When he came in she prepared for him seven beds, six of silver and one of gold; and between one bed and the other there were steps of silver, but the last were of gold. She then went up to the top bed and lay down upon it naked. He too went up after her in his desire to sit naked with her, when all of a sudden the four fringes (Tzitzit) of his garment struck him across the face; whereupon he slipped off the bed and sat upon the ground. She also got down from the bed and sat upon the ground and said to him, “I will not leave until you tell me what blemish you saw in me.” He replied, “never have I seen a woman as beautiful as you are; but there is one commandment which God has commanded us, it is called tzizith, and with regard to it the expression “I am the Lord your God” is written twice, signifying, I am He who will exact punishment in the future and I am He who will give reward in the future. The tzizith appeared to me as four witnesses”.
She said, “I will not leave you until you tell me your name, the name of your town, the name of your teacher, the name of your school in which you study the Torah.” He wrote all this down and handed it to her. Thereupon she arose and divided her estate into three parts; one third for the government, one third to be distributed among the poor, and one third she took with her in her hand; the bed clothes, however, she retained. She then came to the Beth Hamidrash (house of study) of Rabbi Chiyya, and said to him, ‘Master, give instructions that they may make me a convert’. ‘My daughter’, he replied; ‘perhaps you have set your eyes on one of my students?’ She thereupon took out the paper and handed it to him. ‘Go’, said he ‘and enjoy your acquisition’…Those very bed-clothes which she had spread for the student for an illicit purpose she now spread out for him lawfully.
Story #2 (Babilonian Talmud, Avodah Zara 17a)
It was said of Rabb Eleazar ben Dordia that there was no harlot in the world he did not have relations with. Once, upon hearing that there was a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea who accepted a purse of gold coins for her hire, he took a purse of gold coins and crossed seven rivers to reach her. As he was with her, she had flatulence and said, “As this gas will not return to its place, so will Eleazar ben Dordia never be received in repentance.”
He thereupon went, sat between two mountains and exclaimed: “O, mountains, plead for mercy for me!” They replied: “How shall we pray for thee? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, “For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed!”” He exclaimed: “Heaven and earth, plead for mercy for me! They, too, replied: How shall we pray for you? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, “For the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment.””… He then pleaded with the Sun and moon and the stars and constellations to plead for mercy on his behalf but they all gave the same answer.
Said Rabbi Eliezer, “Then it depends upon me alone!” Having placed his head between his knees, he wept aloud until his soul departed (he died). Then a bath-kol (voice from heaven) was heard proclaiming: ‘Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordai is destined for the life of the world to come!’ When Rebi heard this story he wept and said: “One person may acquire eternal life after many years, and another person in but an hour!” Rebi also said: Not only are those who repent accepted but they are even called “Rabbi”!”
Questions and Explanation
Why in the first story does Rabbi Chiyyah’s student do tishuvah without dying and even merit marrying the harlot, but in the second story though Rabbi Eliezer ben Dordi does tishuvah the ending is more tragic?
I would suggest that the difference is in the differing attitude and motivations of the two rabbis with regard to tishuvah. Rabbi Chiyyah’s student repents out of his appreciation for mitzvoth, for holiness. He is able to weigh the infinite value of the spirit (his tzitzit) against the fleeting pleasure of the physical. This well balanced approach brings him to teshuvah without losing himself, and the parts of himself that are of value and can be used for holiness. He will be able to elevate the physical by his connection to the spiritual, and indeed in the end of the story he truly does this, as the Talmud points out, by marrying the harlot and transforming the bed clothes that were illicit into those of a mitzvah.
In the second story, in contrast, Rabbi Eliezer ben Dordi is only moved to tishuvah when the physical becomes repulsive, only when the harlot, the object of his desire, passes gas, and is thus suddenly stripped of her sensuality and the curtain of his idealization of her and her sensuality is lifted. He does not have the spiritual tools with which to raise the physical and sanctify it, his obsession and desire are gone and he is left alone and empty.
The lesson is an important one for all of us as we engage in the process of tishuvah at this time of year. There are many motivations for teshuvah. Sometimes we feel empty and lost, grasping at straws. Tishuvah can emerge from there but it does not always sanctify one’s life, rather such tishuvah often functions by jettisoning one’s current identity and replacing it with a different life. In contrast one can add holiness to the life one already leads and let the mitzvoth not expunge who we are but sanctify us. The second I think is more organic since it does not demand the severance of one’s self but the sanctification and tweaking thereof.
Much blessing for a New Year that is one not of, not repentance through rejecting who we are, but a “return,” a “tishuvah” to the Godly people that we truly are. Shanah Tovah.
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August 20, 2009 | 9:35 am
Posted by Rabba Sara Hurwitz
There have already been a few entries in this space discussing the efficacy of prayer, and what we, Morethodox Jews can learn from others about tefilah. I’d like to add to this theme in my post today.
I believe that one of the foundations of prayer is the ability to intertwine fixed/set prayer with spontaneous prayer. Chana, who according to the Talmud (Brachot 31a) was the progenitor of prayer, prayed twice when she beseeched God for a child as recounted in Samuel 1, chapter one and two. Her first prayer was wordless (“And it came to pass, as she continued praying before God…Now Chana spoke in her heart.”
יב וְהָיָה כִּי הִרְבְּתָה לְהִתְפַּלֵּל לִפְנֵי יְהֹ וְעֵלִי שֹׁמֵר אֶת־פִּֽיהָ: יג וְחַנָּה הִיא מְדַבֶּרֶת עַל־לִבָּהּ
(Samuel 1:12-12) This prayer was spontaneous, filled with visceral emotion. In Chana’s second prayer, however, one has the sense that she sat with her quill and parchment for days, composing carefully her words of gratitude and praise to God. Her second prayer was deliberate and formal. In fact the Yalkut Shemoni Shmuel 1 says that it is this second prayer that became the blueprint of the shmonei esrei.
Our challenge is to follow Chana and find ways to combine both set (keva) prayer as well as spontaneous prayer into a meaningful and godly experience. I spent this past week at a Jewish retreat center where I encountered the difficulty of this challenge. At one point on the retreat I stepped into a Jewish renewal style Shabbat morning service, and found that there was very little traditional liturgy weaved into the davening. This type of formless prayer did not appeal to me. On the other hand, I had the opportunity to “daven mincha through Yoga,” as the program advertised it. To my surprise, I found that embodying, literally, the words of the mincha prayer to be an extremely uplifting experience. (The Yoga Mincha did not, of course, replace my regular traditional davening). We threw our hands up in the air in joy as we recited the word “ashrei.’ Then we went into a sitting pose at the word “yoshvei.” And then dropped our hands down, in a cave like manner, to create a home as we said the word “Vaytecha” (Ashrei Yoshvei Vaytecha—How happy or praiseworthy are those who dwell in Your house). Imbuing traditional liturgy with an entirely new element forced me to think about the words in a different way. I found myself reaching out to God “with all my heart, with all my soul and with all my might.” I was reminded of the experience Yitzchak might have had as he mediated in the field at evening time (Bereishit 24:63). Or the uplifting prayer of the Levites, who according to Psalms (150:3) praised God with the harp, lyre, and through dance. Spirituality takes on many forms. Tapping into ones spiritual self is the challenge.
Meaningful prayer is something that many strive to attain and maintain. I learned this week to step out of my prayer comfort zone, just a little, even if to experience a taste of how others achieve spiritual moments. As we enter the month of Elul, a month where we focus more than ever on our prayerful selves, let’s keep striving to bring ourselves closer to God.
August 18, 2009 | 8:42 pm
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
A few weeks ago I officiated at a wedding. The bride was a giyyoret (a convert to Judaism), and the couple had requested that the honor of reading the ketuba under the chuppah be given to the bride’s teacher. Her teacher was truly her rebbe muvhak, the teacher from whom she had learned the great majority of her Torah knowledge, and from whom she had learned how to practice Judaism. Naturally I agreed, and we proceeded accordingly.
As could be expected after many years of Talmud study, the rebbe read the Aramaic text flawlessly. The bride glowed with joy and appreciation. It was a magical moment within an already magical day.
Most Orthodox rabbis would not have allowed this rebbe to read this ketuba. Because in this case, the rebbe was a woman.
Halacha, as our community practices it, excludes women from a variety of public ritual roles. But reading the ketuba happens not to be one of them. Rabbis who have written in opposition to women reading the ketuba invariably open their arguments by acknowledging precisely this point. As one scholarly detractor has written, “If one judges the issue from the perspective of the laws of the marriage ceremony, there’s nothing wrong … The marriage would be one hundred percent valid”. Yet, he and many others would have said “no” in this case.
On what grounds? For one scholar, a woman reading the ketuba violates the laws of personal modesty. But is the reading of a ketuba less modest than teaching a class, or addressing a professional gathering? The latter are activities in which perfectly modest women engage in regularly today. For another scholar the issue is not modesty, but tradition. “Tradition possesses its own power, and why should we deviate from tradition for no purpose?”. But why would anyone assume that a particular women is being chosen to read the ketuba “for no purpose”? Have you ever been at a wedding and thought to yourself that the man who is reading the ketuba was chosen by the couple “for no purpose”?
But it is actually a third objection to a women reading the ketuba that seems to have the most currency. Put forward by numerous rabbinic writers in a variety of contexts, it declares that whenever Orthodox women perform ritual practices that are traditionally associated with men, their motivation is invariably subversive. Women who read a ketuba (or who recite Kiddush or HaMotzi at the Shabbat table, or who take a lulav, or who wear a tallit when they daven) are invariably engaged in an act of religious disobedience, cynically utilizing religious practice as a means of expressing their rebellion against perceived unfairness or injustice in Orthodox life. Thus, not only do their acts lack religious value, they actually constitute sin.
There are, of course, several things wrong with this way of thinking. For starters, there’s the astonishing implicit assertion that the seeking of fairness and justice are to be regarded as acts of religious rebellion. But beyond this, the very essence of the argument constitutes an outrageous act of slander against thousands of Orthodox women. They are rebelling?? Is there any lack of fully egalitarian Jewish movements that are open to women who want out of Orthodoxy or out of Halacha? Surely not. But these women have not bolted Orthodoxy. They are engaged in a campaign of religious disobedience?? Are Orthodox women who read ketubot, recite Kiddush and lain in women’s tefilla groups not observing Kashrut? Or Shabbat? Or the laws of Niddah? We are forbidden by halacha to be suspicious of the upright. How is it conceivable to causally, unthinkingly condemn thousands of pious women as being subversive religious rebels? And for how long will so many of us stand by as this slander continues to shape Orthodox practice?
The woman who read the ketuba at the wedding described above happens to be my wife, a profoundly religious woman, a role model, an inspiration, a lifelong Jewish educator. She is a person who believes in fairness and justice, and who wants to leave a fairer and more just Orthodoxy to the girls and women who will follow her. And there are so many Orthodox women like her in these respects, heroes of our generation, who, in addition to all of their other attributes, are wise enough to not be dissuaded by baseless slander, no matter where it originates. They deserve our support.
August 18, 2009 | 11:28 am
Posted by Rabbi Barry Gelman
If you understand the title of this post you are ahead of the game.
I wonder why the Modern Orthodox community does pay more attention to and study the works of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Aside from his book The Sabbath, much of his work goes unnoticed and certainly unstudied in our community.
Rabbi Heschel wrote and spoke about so many of the challenges of religion in a free society. He concentrated the need and difficulty of balancing the regularity of Jewish religious practice with spontaneity, referring to these to contrary principles as kevah and kavanah, the religious ideal of living a life of, what he called, “wonder” and “radical amazement” by never taking God’s world for granted and fundamental importance of Halacha as an ingredient of the life of a spiritually healthy Jew.
While many are familiar with Rabi Heschel as the rabbi who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma Alabama, many are unaware his focus on Halacha. I sometimes wonder if the popularity of the picture of Rabbi Heschel with King in Selma has diminished focus on the other aspects of his career.
Part of the reason why Heschel goes unnoticed in the Orthodox community is because he spent most of his career at the Jewish Theological Seminary – the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism. As such he is deemed “treif” by large segments of our community. To my mind this is a terrible shame and we continue to ignore his writings and teachings to our own peril. We should be teaching Heschel in our schools and in our shuls.
How many is the orthodox community are aware of these words penned by Rabbi Heschel in 1958. “The Bible is an answer to the question, What does God require of Man? But to modern man, this question is surpassed by another one, namely, What does man demand of God…Absorbed in the struggle for emancipation of the individual we have concentrated our attention upon the idea of human rights and overlooked the importance of human obligations.”
If we did not know that the following came from the pen of Rabbi Heschel we could have easily attributed it to any orthodox rabbi. “Another ailment that plagues us is the monopoly of education. Actually, education is a matter which rests primarily with the parent, with the father. The teacher is but a representative of the father, according to Jewish tradition. Thou shalt teach them diligently, not vicariously…Religious instruction, like charity, begins at home.”
Rabbi Heschel was also an astute observer of the human condition. When commenting on the challenge of resistance to Torah he wrote the following: “Resistance to revelation in our time came from two diametrically opposed conceptions of man: one maintained that man was too great to be in need of divine guidance, and the other maintained that man was too small to be worthy of divine guidance.” Chew on that for a while.
The beauty of Rabbi Heschel’s writings is that much of them are not weighed down by the philosophical jargon that make so many other writers of his time difficult to understand. There is a timeless quality to his style making his teachings accessible.
I close with one of Rabbi Heschel’s poems (he actually was hoping to make a career out of poetry but one of his mentors suggested he would be better at Philosophy)
God Follows Me Everywhere
God follows me everywhere-
spins a net of glances around me
shines upon my sightless back like a sun.
God follows me like a forest everywhere.
My lip, always amazed, are truly numb, dumb,
like a child who blunders upon an ancient holy place.
God follows me like a shiver everyewhere.
My desire is for rest; the demand within me is: Rise up,
See how prophetic visions are scattered in the streets.
I go with my reveries as with a secret
in a long corridor thought the world-
and sometimes I glimpse high above me, the faceless face of God.
God follows me in tramways, in cafes.
Oh, it is only with the back of the pupils of one’s eyes that
one can see
how secrets ripen, how visions come to be.
August 17, 2009 | 6:18 pm
Posted by Rabbi Asher Lopatin
I have always had a rough time getting into the idea of animal, bird or grain sacrifices meaningful. The idea of killing an animal and spritzing its blood on the alter and burning some of it, eating some of it – has never spoken to me. Just last week, in Re’eh, we talked a lot about centralizing sacrifices. And this week, Parshat Shoftim, while focusing mainly on leadership issues, still manages to slip in how sacrifices: Which sacrifices go to the Kohanim, the spiritual leaders? How to make “leadership” sacrifices, and not blemished ones. What do we make of all this talk about sacrifices, and, more to the point, how do they relate to today’s world?
Here are some ideas I’ve picked up over the years: Even though “korban” comes from the root to get closer to God, the word “sacrifice” actually does convey the meaning of this ritual, but we normally forget that “sacrifice” is a powerful word for the lives we live: it means to give up something for a causes, for someone you love, for something you believe in and feel is right. At the core, that is what God wants – God wants us to make the necessary sacrifices in life in order to have a better connection to God – to come closer to God – and to have a meaningful life and to make this a better world.
One easy read of this interpretation and translation is in the “avodah” blessing we say at least three times every day of the week: “Retze Hashem Elokeinu… v’ishei Yisrael … t’kabel b’ratzon…” We ask God to please be happy with the People of Israel and to accept the “fires” – read sacrifices, day to day sacrifices – of Israel with favor… That doesn’t mean the ritual slaughter we do; that means the real tough choices we make to be Jews. No, it doesn’t have to be hard, “shveir”, to be a Jew, but it does require the ability to give up some things at some times. It’s those “fires” – we want God to accept. At the most painful and radical level, those are the burnt bodies of the millions of Jews who gave their lives merely for being born Jewish. That sacrifice, involuntary and tragic, is a holier fire than all the animal sacrifices offered in the Temple – first or second. But even the smaller burnt offerings, the moments of pleasure and opportunity that we sacrifice and burn for the sake of our love of God and Judaism and what is right, we ask for God to see them all and take them all in a sign of our devotion to God and our ability to rise up – the olah offering – and reach closer to God.
But will these sacrifices of love and devotion be enough? After all, in the standard Musaf, we Orthodox maintain the language: “And the Musaf of Yom… we will do and sacrifice with love as you have desired and as you have written to us in the Torah…” That’s not some vague offering of love and devotion and sacrifice. No, that‘s the real animal and grain, and we say so in the musaf davening as well. Actually, we would fulfill our obligation not enumerating the details, and so we see that those details are not central to the prayer. But still, we say we will sacrifice as God proscribed in the Torah! Look closely, however; we say we will do this sacrifice WITH LOVE! Yes, we will do the same thing God told us to do in the Torah, but we will do it in a mode of love. What will that look like? I don’t know. But what it looks like is not as important. What is important is that it is essentially a sacrifice not of an animal or a grain, but a sacrifice of love. And perhaps we won’t even need any animals to do these sacrifices in the future – the Torah commandment will be fulfilled with love. There are plenty of midrashim that clearly state that almost all the sacrifices will be eliminated in the Messianic era. I say no! The sacrifices will still be here, but they will be offered through love and devotion not through physical destruction of an animal or a bird or a grain.
One more thought regarding these sacrifices of love: Last week’s Parsha of Re’eh warned us not to offer these sacrifices anywhere but in the Holy Land and the Holy City where God’s name is sanctified. I think there is a hint in these verses that the sacrifices we make for Judaism and for God’s presence in the world should be done in Israel, the Land of Zion, and not, primarily in the Diaspora. Yes, there was a period where sacrifices were allowed on “bamot” – on altars everywhere. But ultimately, the Torah wants us to put our effort, our commitment our devotion and our love into the Land of Israel and come together to show our love of God. So work hard, Jews everywhere, and make the sacrifices of love that God requires, but save your most profound work for Israel, for the Land where God wanted all the sacrifices to be made, to build a great people in order to be the light onto the nations.
August 14, 2009 | 11:40 am
Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
This week’s Torah portion Re’eh-“See” begins “See I place before you today blessing and curse, the blessing that you will listen to the Mitzvot….” The Midrah on these verses quotes the two additional verses to bring to bear on our portion, “The mitzvah is a candle and Torah is light” and “The human soul is the candle of God.” The human’s candle is the Mitzvah and God’s candle is the human soul. What is this reciprocity?
The Sefat Emet, Rabi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger writes on this Midrash that in everything physical there is a Divine life force from the Source of Life. (Indeed as Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi writes in the Sha’ar Ha’yichud V’haemunah, without this Divine life force nothing would exist. The state of non-existence is the status quo, therefor it takes a life force from the Divine to give all things, even inanimate objects, a “soul” which gives them existence.)
Rabbi Yehudah Leib continues to explain that our job is to raise up these Divine sparks of Divine life force that are hidden in all physicality, which we do through Mitzvot. God’s candle is the human soul means that God’s light is dependent upon us to liberate it from its hiding place within the physical, in this way God and God’s light is “dependant” upon us.
He writes that the blessing and curse the Torah speaks of at the beginning of our parsha is not a reciprocal reward and punishment, rather the inner point of Divine light in all things is itself the blessing that the Torah refers to that we will “hear” and “see” when we “listen to the mitzvoth.”
Similarly regarding Shabbat the Torah writes, and God “blessed” the Shabbat. This notion of blessing regarding Shabbat is said in the same vain as what we have explained. The Shabbat is (the most) conducive time in which to become aware of the inner Divine in all things. On Shabbat just eating, just having pleasure is holy and can reveal the Divine life force in what we enjoy. Not to separate ourselves from the world but to utilize it so we can hear the divine in all things, this is our mission on earth. Shabbat Shalom.
August 13, 2009 | 10:36 am
Posted by Rabbi Barry Gelman
Very often, Rosh Hashana comes along and I find myself thinking: How did the month of Elul come and go so quickly - I feel that I did not utilize my time adequately to prepare myself to stand before HaKadosh Baruch Hu on Yom haDin?
In that vein, as we are m’varchin haChodesh this coming Shabbat for the month of Elul, I would like to get a head start by focusing on a central phrase in the Yamim Noraim liturgy.
The climax of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer is the final statement which we declare out loud together:
“וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רעַ הַגְּזֵרָה “
“Repentance, prayer and charity avert the evil decree.”
The Rambam, Maimonides, in his Moreh Nevuchim, Guide to the Perplexed, 3:53, explains: הביטוי צדקה גזור מן צדק. The word tzedakah comes from the root tzedek, which means justice.
The Rambam further explains that the essence of this concept is granting to everyone that to which they have right or giving every being that which corresponds to their merits.
Tzedakah therefore, according to the Rambam, is generally considered charity in the sense of providing for the basic needs of one who is lacking financially, according to what is due to them.
Tzedakah is often connected to a related concept, that of chesed, or gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness. Chesed can generally be described as giving in excess what is required. That is, doing something for someone to whom one has no obligation or doing something for someone one who deserves it, but in a greater measure than is warranted.
Thus, the contrast between tzedakah and chesed is that tzedakah is an act of beneficence toward another person who deserves or merits what is given to them and when the giver has no obligation to them. With chesed, the giver also does not have an obligation to the individual to which she gives, but that individual receives in excess of their merit.
The Rabbis compared these two concepts in the Gemara (Sukkah 49b)
בשלשה דברים גדולה גמילות חסדים יותר מן הצדקה, צדקה - בממונו, גמילות חסדים - בין בגופו בין בממונו. צדקה - לעניים, גמילות חסדים - בין לעניים בין לעשירים. צדקה - לחיים, גמילות חסדים - בין לחיים בין למתים.
Acts of chesed are greater that tzedakah in three ways: tzedakah is accomplished with one’s money, chesed is accomplished through money or through other actions. Tzedakah is for the poor whereas chesed can be for the poor or for the wealthy. Tzedakah is only for the living whereas chesed can be for the living or for those who have died.
If this is the case that chesed is a much deeper and more comprehensive act of good, why is it that we declare:
וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רעַ הַגְּזֵרָה?
Why don’t we say together:
וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּחֶסֶד מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רעַ הַגְּזֵרָה?
One way to explain the choice of tzedakah is based on the ideas of Rav Yosef Baer Soloveitchik who explains that tzedakah is an integral part of the teshuva (repentance), process. Although the Gemara (Rosh HaShanah 16b) derives this principle from a verse in Psalms, the Rav chooses to refer back to the chet ha-eigel, the sin of the golden calf. Part of the teshuva process for the Jewish people was their monetary contribution to the mishkan, the tabernacle. In response to their sin, B’nei Yisrael began building the sanctuary which would be the focal point of their connection with God. They were required to donate to this project. The Rav further explains the connection between teshuva and tzedakah by noting the there is an element of selfishness in transgression. Some form of personal benefit has been given precedence over religious and social principles.
The Torah describes the half shekel which everyone was obligated to donate to the mishkan as a kofer, a ransom. It is as if to say that one who has sinned is held captive and must be redeemed through giving.
Tzedakah therefore, is a means of demonstrating compassion, responsibility, and a willingness to share. For this reason, forgiveness from God can only be obtained when tzedakah accompanies the teshuva process.
Following this understanding of the connection of tzedakah to teshuva, we can offer another understanding as to why the High Holiday liturgy emphasizes tzedakah as opposed to chesed. The monetary obligations of tzedakah are limited and are directed soley to the poor. The halachah has a rich body of laws outlining the amounts of tzedakah one is required to give in response to different situations.
The legal duties of one’s personal involvement in gemilut chessadim are without restrictions. The process of teshuva, of return, would be that much more difficult if part of that process was a mitzvah, a mandate, which was in effect at all times, to all people and in all situations.
Tzedakah, as I mentioned above, is intimately bound to teshuva and can be an expression of our commitment to return. It is a mitzvah in and of itself which is at the foundation of a Jewish community. The community, as well as the indivudual, has a responsibility to those in need. The giving of tzedakah is considered a fundamental part of being human such that even one who receives tzedakah due to their need still is required to give tzedakah themselves.
The Maharal, Rav Yehuda Louwe, in his work Nitivot Olam, expands upon the difference between tzedakah and gemilut chesed. Tzedakah is judged by the recipient. The magnitude of the need will determine the degree of assistance to alleviate the need. Chesed on the other hand, is to be judged by the giver—the quality of caring that a person is capable of will determine the nature and degree of the remedy.
Tzedakah is sparked by the demands of compassion. One cannot bear to see a person suffering, so one is compelled by a sense of sympathy to help the other. If that present need did not exist, there would be no compassion necessary and no charity given.
Chesed requires a broader, more sensitive heart and a generosity of spirit to be integrated into one’s personality. Chesed then, will not be a reaction forthcoming only in response to sadness. It will be an ever-present quality which will anticipate needs, understand other’s limitations, search for solutions and initiate acts of benevolence, even when unstated or un-noticed by the recipient.
This year will present financial challenges for many. Please keep these individuals, families and communities in mind even though we all may feel the burden of our country’s economic difficulites. There are many in need of tzedakah. However, help can also come in the form of chesed. Assistance need not only be financial, it can come in the form of helping people save money, donating one’s time and energy and sharing one’s resources.
Next week we will mark the beginning of the month of Elul and with it, the formal beginning of our spiritual preparations for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If our hearts and eyes are open we will see the many opportunities for tzedakah and chesed before us. Through our actions may we merit compassion from the One who is compassionate. Wishing us all a productive and meaningful chodesh Elul.
August 12, 2009 | 12:40 am
Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
Modern Orthodoxy, when done right, is obviously more demanding than standard orthodoxy. In addition to fulfilling the identical set of mitzvoth, Modern Orthodox Jews are bound by so many more sacred religious obligations, needing to engage – not simply to ignore – the broader social, intellectual and spiritual landscape of God’s world. I recently realized though, that the differences also include something I would not have imagined. Apparently, only Modern Orthodox men are required to engage, and to struggle with, themselves.
There is a struggle that has been abandoned by many men, who identify with Orthodoxy’s Ultra Brand. The most recent evidence of this is in the proliferation of mehadrin busses in Jerusalem and elsewhere. These are busses, which serve ultra-neighborhoods, and in which only men may sit in the forward portion of the bus, while women must take seats in the back. As is well known, ultra-violence has repeatedly been wielded against women who refuse to cooperate satisfactorily with the mehadrin rules.
What is the rationale for all this? I encourage you to read a recent article in the Jerusalem Report (6/8/09) for all the details, but the simple gist is that many of the women who ride busses are not dressed modestly by our traditional standards, (though even modestly dressed women must sit in the back and can be physically assaulted for refusing to do so), and this can lead the men to have sinful thoughts. But why can’t men simply be asked to not have sinful thoughts? In the words of a well-known figure in the ultra-community, “We men are weak. So why put us at risk?” Nebach.
Never mind for a moment the irony of “weakness” being used as the justification for asserting social and political (and even physical) power. When did it happen that we men raised the white-flag on self-control? What ever happened to “Who is powerful? The one who can conquer his inclination”? How is it that a profoundly pious community of men has thrown in the towel, and has simply declared itself too weak to not sin? Doesn’t it sound a little Christian?
And beyond these questions lies another. It’s difficult to conquer one’s inclination, yes. But when did one person’s struggle become someone else’s responsibility and burden? If a man hasn’t yet conquered his inclination to his satisfaction, let him take a cab! It is bad enough to have abdicated one’s own religious responsibilities. But then to tell others that as a result they have to go sit in the back? It’s ultra-something, but I’m not sure ultra-what exactly.
Modesty is an extremely important religious value. Modern Orthodox women and men alike are religiously obligated to honor the essence of what makes us human, and to not call attention to that which is merely superficial and fleeting. The way that we choose to dress is unmistakably an expression of our religious sensibilities. But we do not believe that the world is too dangerous a place for us to live in. We do not believe that God left us here defenseless against our own inclinations. . And we never allow our own problems to serve as justification for being unfair to others.