Thursday, August 25, 2011

Re'eh: Navigating the Sea of Tzedakah; Bring a Fishing Pole...

You know that feeling when you walk into a grocery store, and you just need to buy a box of cereal, a tube of toothpaste, or a bar of soap, and suddenly you're standing in front of a thousand different options? It can be so overwhelming, crippling almost, that you wish you never needed the product in the first place! Sometimes I feel that way about tzedakah, about giving to charity. I receive so many different letters, so many diverse solicitations, that I almost prefer to give to none of the above, rather than having to read through all the letters and learn about every organization.
So how do we navigate these challenges in order to achieve a favorable outcome? The answer should never be that we just don't give any tzedakah, so considering that we still want to give, how do we prioritize and focus our efforts? More importantly, and perhaps central to this issue, what does it really mean, to give tzedakah? Understanding the meaning of tzedakah is, I believe, the key to helping us make informed and rewarding decisions about giving to charity.Link
Let us begin in this week's Torah portion, Re'eh. In Deuteronomy, chapter 15, verses 7-8, we read the following: "If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs." These verses teach us a couple of essential truths about tzedakah. First, we cannot harden our hearts, meaning that we should give lovingly. Don't make others feel demeaned or humiliated if they are in need, but instead find ways to preserve their dignity. Furthermore, find causes that you care about, charities that you will want to get involved in, that inspire you and might even offer you opportunities to get personally involved, and that make you feel better about yourself and the people you are helping.
We also learn that we must open our hands and give of ourselves. And in the same verse we also see a surprising revelation. The Torah doesn't tell us to give charity, in the way we traditionally understand it today. It says "lend him," and only "sufficient for whatever he needs," meaning that the goal of tzedakah is to help get other people back on their feet. The medieval philosopher, Rambam, stated this very same notion when he created his eight levels of charitable giving. For Rambam, the highest level is to give someone a job or a loan to help them become self-sufficient, in particular because it gives them a sense of dignity, self-worth, and pride. That is the message of the Torah, echoed by the Rambam, and essential for us today.

I'm sure you've heard this stated many ways, but I always thought it was done best by the 90's
band Arrested Development, who sang a song called "Give a Man a Fish," which includes the lyric, "Teach him how to fish and he'll eat forever." (Rebecca and I both feel that music was just better in the 90's...) The question for us all is, which charities allow us to do this? Yes, it's true that we also have to support those organizations that meet immediate needs, that provide toys for needy children, soup kitchens for the homeless, and aid for parts of the country or the world after a natural disaster. These are all crucial causes. But we also have an obligation to look down the road, to think about long-term solutions to enormous problems. And when we are being inundated with solicitations, and there's a risk that we'll just tune out and wind up giving nothing, I think a focused approach with a set of values and priorities guiding our decisions, may help lead the way and direct our giving.
Most of us don't feel we have the time to teach someone how to fish, whether with a fishing rod and a slimy worm or in the metaphoric sense. Getting personally, emotionally, financially, or physically involved in a cause is time consuming and challenging. But maybe, with the High Holidays and the start of a new year around the corner, it's something worth considering. And if that won't work for you, at least consider what it means to "open your hands" and avoid "hardening your heart." How might your tzedakah look different if these became your guiding principles? Fish... I mean, food, for thought...

hotos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy of rynosoft on Flickr

2. CC image courtesy of Lars P. on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of rumpleteaser on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of Egan Snow on Flickr

5. CC image courtesy of Minarae on Flickr

6. Image courtesy of Pat Crowe Photography

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Eikev: Can't Buy (or Force) Me Love

When I read the Torah, I like to look for the meaning behind the words. I hope you've figured this out about me by now. This is especially true for the Torah, but I also find that it affects other areas of my life as well. Sometimes words themselves do not convey the underlying meaning, they do not tell the whole story. The first time the Bible exhorts the Israelites to stay away from Moabite women, for example, you might tell yourself that Israelites avoided Moabite women. But when the Bible repeats it time and again, and several prophets echo the same sentiment, you start to realize (I hope...) that it was a real problem, and that the Moabites were tough to resist. Clever storyteller, that Bible...
This week's Torah portion has once again led me down the path of peeking behind the words in search of hidden meaning. In Deuteronomy, 7:17-18, we read: "Should you say to yourselves, 'These nations are more numerous than we; how can we dispossess them?' You need have no fear of them. You have but to bear in mind what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and all the Egyptians." Ok, I got it. No need to worry, Israelites. No reason to fret. Just remember the plagues and the splitting of the sea and you'll remember that God is on your side. Obviously, the Israelites were no longer concerned about conquering the land, because their fears were all assuaged. Right?

Wrong. Once again we see that God needs to keep reminding the Israelites to maintain faith. Why? Because they had none. The Israelites were having a really tough time relying on God, and trusting that God would take care of them.

So our follow-up question might then be, why not? Why are the Israelites so unable to trust God? What is missing from this relationship? The answer, I believe, is in the text itself. In last week's Torah portion, Vaetchanan, we learned the famous verse from the beginning of the Shema, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Deut. 6:5). Juxtapose that with a verse in this week's reading: "If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving God with all your heart and soul..." (Deut. 11:13) The first verse, from last week, was a command, "You MUST love God." This week the language has changed, it's conditional, "IF." Perhaps in between the two statements, a lesson was learned: You can't force love.
We don't like to admit this, but the Israelites never agreed to join God in the wilderness. Sure, they groaned under slavery and called out for help. Yet they never willingly set off for the Promised Land, and they certainly didn't bargain for the 10 Commandments, or the Torah filled with 613 laws to govern every aspect of their lives! The reason why they keep complaining in the desert, rebelling against Moses, and trying to turn back to Egypt is because they don't want to go. The Torah has to keep trying to mandate observance and participation because it doesn't come naturally to the Israelites. So where does that leave us? How do we make sense of these commandments, and our own relationship to God, when we view the Israelites from this new perspective?

Ordinarily I'd take on these questions, and try to leave you with a (potentially) satisfactory answer. But I'm not going to do that. We're only about six weeks away from the start of the High Holidays, and it's time to begin introspecting. What does this all mean to me? How am I going to
allow my relationship to Judaism to grow and evolve? Sometimes we need a little tension and dis-ease to force us to think about these questions a little more. It's very possible that when the Israelites set out on their journey, they did not love God; what does that mean for me on my journey? Let's begin to explore this together, as we continue on the path towards the High Holidays and the New Year that lies ahead.

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy of zeevveez on Flickr

2. CC image courtesy of hfb on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of genvessel on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of elirook on Flickr

5. CC image courtesy of @jbtaylor on Flickr

6. CC image courtesy of walkinguphills on Flickr

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Vaetchanan (Shabbat Nachamu): A Frequent Visitor to Jerusalem... Who Isn't Always Sure Why

One of the great things about returning to Israel again and again, specifically to Jerusalem, is how so many different places hold meaning from various periods in my life. This past week during our synagogue trip to Israel, we drove past the neighborhood of Abu Tor, where my family resided for a year when I was 8; we took a Shabbat walking tour through Katamon where Rebecca and I lived in 2006-7; we ate at restaurants along Emek Refaim Street, where my brother and I studied in the summer of 1999; and we prayed at the Kotel, the Western Wall, where I have many emotional memories from several different trips. And these are just a few of the wonderful nostalgic moments that came flooding back as I wandered through the streets of Jerusalem.

But as with most things in life - and certainly in Israel - it's much more complicated and nuanced than that. I also passed restaurants where piguim, terrorist attacks, had taken place; I remembered all the cab drivers, grocers, government employees, store owners, and landlords (to name but a few...) that I had to fight with over the years; and I was sadly reminded of too many unpleasant encounters with ultra-Orthodox Jews, where I felt judged, condescended, or otherwise discriminated against.

Even just over the course of the past seven, fleeting days of our trip, we've had so many "Israeli" experiences. Some of them filled with holiness, spirituality, breathtaking beauty, and rich, ancient history; while others, equally typical, were marred by intrusive religious extremists, rude and obnoxious locals, or other challenges of Israeli society and culture. Israel seems all at once to be impressively modern, yet surprisingly antiquated. It's unimaginably gorgeous, both the nature and the man-made structures, yet simultaneously dirty, poorly maintained, and covered in dust. It's sacred, mystical, and ancient, yet noisy, frustrating, and pushy. How do we reconcile these statements that all somehow manage to be true of Israel and Jerusalem at the same time?

On a personal note, I surprised myself with how excited I was to be back in Jerusalem. I felt a thrill as the bus climbed the mountains and entered the city, I clapped unintentionally when we first walked the streets, and my excitement was almost tangible as we prayed together as a group in the Old City. I can't figure it out. But I also know I can't deny any of these conflicting aspects of Israeli life. Israel can't be explained or passed along to anyone else; you have to experience it for yourself. And when you do, you have to weigh the pros and cons and decide for yourself whether you come out loving it or hating it.

For some, the pros so outweigh the cons that the person cannot help but make aliyah. I promise you now, that will never be the case for me. Yet somehow, even when I think I've had all I can take of Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, the pros keep winning narrowly enough to keep me coming back. For now, I will admit to you that I'm glad our trip has moved on to other parts of the country... and I eagerly look forward to the next time I'll be back.

Follow us on our Ohev Shalom Israel Trip on our synagogue website: