Tag Archives: tzedekah

“Give, You Shall Give”

by Dobra Levitt (Jerusalem, Israel)

Two memories lodged in my past seem to have waited years for my Talmud Torah class to reveal their true value.  We have been learning the laws worded as double expressions in the Torah such as: give, you shall give; lend, you shall lend; load up, you shall load up your neighbor’s fallen donkey. The law of restoring a pledge, “restore, you shall restore,” requires a lender to return the garment of a poor person who has given it as security for a loan. Since his garment is most likely the only covering he has, Torah law made it obligatory to return it to him each day before sunset for as long as it’s held as security. The first memory from my working years in Philadelphia brings this law out of the pages of the Gemarah into living reality.

After university and before I found my first teaching position, I worked for a short time at the Department of Public Assistance.  My job was to visit people receiving financial assistance, lend a sympathetic ear to their cares and concerns, and send in a standardized form recording my observations. The people I visited were humble folk, grateful to the powers-that-be for the help they got and for the “nice miss” who listened to their troubles.

The job took me into neighborhoods I never knew existed. One place was a single room apartment in a building “somewhere near the railroad tracks.”  Its occupant was a small, elderly Afro-American man. By now he’s just a memory of a memory, but for many years he was a living person in my heart.  His slight form, his politeness and gentleness were not abstractions describing him but qualities inseparable from what endeared him to me.  Except for a plain wood bureau and maybe a few items he kept in a closet, the only things he possessed in this world were literally a table, two chairs, and a cot that served as his bed.  Lined up on the bureau top were framed photos of loved ones “from the South.” They were all that really mattered to him. I can’t recall his talking about anything else. I remember standing beside him as he showed me each one, telling me who they were and how they were related to him.

At the bottom of his bed, folded up very neatly, was a khaki overcoat he may have bought at one time from an army and navy store. As sure as I stood there, I knew that coat was what he used to cover himself at night. I may have asked him or found out from my supervisor that a blanket had been ordered for him—it troubled me so that he still had not received it. I must have sent in the visiting form with an urgent request for its immediate delivery, but I was scheduled to leave the Department shortly after my visit, so I never knew the outcome of my gentleman’s story. I always hoped that someone broke through the bureaucratic red tape and got his blanket to him without a minute’s further delay.

Talmudic scenarios, at least literally, are not common anymore. It’s unlikely that when we step out the door we’ll encounter a lost sheep we should exert ourselves to return to its owner or help a neighbor unload his fallen donkey, but there are rare exceptions. With my own eyes I saw how a frail mortal could have nothing to his name in this world but one garment to cover himself at night—and if he had to give it as security, his very life could be endangered if it wasn’t returned on time.  “If you take thy neighbor’s garment to pledge, you shall restore it to him before the sun goes down; it is his only garment, his covering for his skin; wherein shall he sleep?”

Reading this passage from the Torah, I felt the incredible closeness and immediacy of Hashem in every situation and far more deeply felt the line from tehillim that came to me: “The Lord is good to all, and His mercies extend to all His works.

Years later, and on a lighter note, the second memory is a perfect embodiment of the doubled expression, “give, you shall give.” One of the meanings the sages derived from the repetition was that it was better to give multiple times – giving smaller sums to several charities rather than a lump sum to only one or giving to three poor people five shekels each for a coffee rather than fifteen to one person. Little did I know at the time that I was fulfilling a law of the Torah in this ideal way.

I was at the time learning in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, occasionally making forays into Boro Park for shopping or meeting friends. Leaving Boro Park one early afternoon to catch my bus, I was accosted (if I can use that word for such a diminutive crowd) by a class of very young yeshivah boys in the fourth or fifth grade asking for a donation. It seems they were collecting for some charitable cause that their school turned into a class competition. There may even have been a run-off among individual boys to decide the Supreme Collector of the whole yeshivah.

Good fortune went round that day. For some reason I had a lot of small change in my bag and on the spot became a dispenser of charity coins to maybe twelve very happy boys. You would think a windfall of immense worth fell into their hands as each one walked away, shouting and jubilant, with his nickel or dime. When just two or three boys were left and I had come almost to the end of my change, I began thinking I should hold on to what was left for the bus fare or something else I might need. Walking towards my bus stop, I explained to the boys why I was “closing up shop.” Having done so well as a group, they accepted the decision with a good grace and went their boyish way – except for one unappeased boy. I can almost see him as he stood his ground. He was smaller than the rest and just as it was undeniable that he wore glasses, so was it absolutely clear he wore intelligence. It was written, as they say, all over him. He persisted at my side, backing away with me as I walked. “But I gave to the whole class,” I told him. “Yes, but I’m a different person,” he answered. And to whatever I said that I thought bolstered my argument, he answered in his childish voice, never changing his tone or showing the least irresolution: “Yes, but I’m a different person.”

Of course I gave him. How could I not! He was so preciously unique and his ingenuous logic was unassailable. It was my logic that was below the mark. Surely I must have had a few bills in my purse so I could have gotten change for the bus, and what could I possibly have suddenly needed in the minutes it took to walk to the station that twenty-five cents would help pay for? When I look back, I think I was acting on the not uncommon instinct to preserve my money lest – who knows? – I might go penniless!

I treasure the  memory of my little yeshivah boy. I can’t begin to count how many times his innocent “Yes, but I’m a different person” has sounded in my heart, making me smile and, on occasion, even admonishing me. Sometimes I am unexpectedly approached by a group of needy people here in Jerusalem where, unfortunately, the poor abound. This often happens before the festivals when poor men and women with needy families ask for help. I have to remind myself: true, nowhere does halacha require me to give away all my money, but I won’t fall below the poverty line if I give more than I regularly give to people who are asking.  Each one has a just claim; each one is a different person.

Dobra Levitt lives in Jerusalem where she writes and teaches creative writing.  She published a memoir called The Fish in the Yellow Paper, a collection of essays describing her childhood and high school teaching years in Philadelphia. Here’s a link to her book if you’d like to take a look: https://amzn.to/2ukRsMG

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Tzedakah

by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

When I give tzedakah
I feel rich.
Somehow, the act of giving
even something small, like shalach manot,
gives me a feeling of wealth
and generosity
of wallet and of spirit.

But tzedakah is about more than giving money;
it’s about trusting that the universe regenerates
and that a lopped-off limb
grows back.
I couldn’t have given tzedakah years ago,
not in the real sense,
and it’s not that I was ever teetering on poverty.
But after years of believing
that an empty bowl would remain empty
and a well might well run dry
I finally feel
that I am more than enough
to give
without risking my own disappearance.

Janet Ruth Falon is a writer and writing teacher in Elkins Park, PA.  Her latest book, In the Spirit of the Holidays: Readings to Enrich Every Jewish Holiday, contains 146 poems about the holidays and can be purchased on Amazon at http://a.co/d/5pejb3w, or through Janet at janetfalon@gmail.com.

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Tzedekah: The Gift of Giving

By Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson (Bala Cynwyd, PA)

Two strong memories of giving are still vivid in my mind’s eye. The first is my father sitting at the dining room table at the end of the year and making out $1.00 checks to each of his favorite charities. This was the 1950s when $1.00 meant something. And since he was a hard-working owner of a gas station and garage, supporting five children and a wife, $1.00 per charity was all he could afford. The other memory is my mother working as a volunteer for our synagogue and packing our one-car garage with other people’s stuff, much to my father’s chagrin, to be saved for the annual rummage sale, the money collected going for needy causes. The garage was always stuffed with stuff!

Both my parents’ actions could be labeled under the Hebrew word tzedakah, an obligation to give to those less fortunate than ourselves. Some also define this word as charity, but the meaning of tzedakah goes beyond charity, and for me, is linked with another Jewish tradition, tikkun olam, which means repair of the world. Helping others is also considered a “mitzvah,” a good deed, all of which dovetails into the whole concept of compassion for others through giving.

I grew up with the idea of tzedakah, and as an adult, continued to emulate my parents, who were following Judaic traditions. (This idea of giving can be found in other religions and belief systems. Jews don’t have a monopoly on this concept.) Then, a couple of years ago, I was introduced to Maimonides’ Eight Degrees of Charity, also known as Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity. Maimonides was a well-known and revered 18th century Jewish philosopher, astronomer, Torah scholar, and physician whose influence Jews still feel today. This ladder was a revelation to me, and the brief description below may give you, as it has me, new thoughts about giving in the future. (I have used several sources, each of which had some variances in language or interpretation.)

  • The lowest rung on this hypothetical ladder is when one gives help or money unwillingly, or gives a small donation grudgingly after being asked.
  • The next-to-the last rung on the ladder is a direct donation, but smaller than s/he is able to give, but given with a smile, after being asked.
  • The next rung up the ladder is a direct donation of sufficient size after being asked or only when asked by the poor.
  • The rung fourth from the bottom (now halfway) is giving a direct donation to the needy, with one another’s knowledge of the giver and the receiver, and without being asked.
  • The fifth rung from the bottom (or third one down) is charity in which the giver knows not the receiver, but the person receiving help does know the giver and may feel indebted.
  • The next rung, directly under the top rung, is when a donation is made anonymously to a charity fund that benefits the poor and the person receiving the help does not know to whom s/he is indebted.
  • The top rung of Maimonides’ ladder is the highest rung of tzedakah. This is when money is donated to prevent a person from becoming poor and helps this person (or persons) to become self-sufficient. This could be in the form of a loan or a job. It is the highest form of charity because it prevents poverty.

With this new information, I am much more aware of how and why I am giving. The next time I am ready to contribute, I want to keep in mind these eight levels of tzedakah and give anonymously, without expecting recognition. In fact, if I can afford to give, then I feel it is a privilege as much as an obligation to help another more needy than myself. I believe that this top rung of the ladder is probably the greatest gift you can give to another, as well as a gift to yourself.

How you give is as important as what you give. If you make wise choices from your heart, I can think of no better gift to yourself and to those in need at this time of year and throughout the next year. Give anonymously with joy and reap its benefits all year long!

(Note: Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity is from Mishneh Torah: Hilcot Matnot Aniyim 10:7-12.)

Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson is a freelance writer and author of four cookbooks, a children’s coloring book, a computer manual, and a children’s (fiction) book based on her ancestors’ trek from Russia to Austria-Hungary (and eventually to America.) She lives in Bala Cynwyd, PA, and has a health-oriented website, www.menupause.info  for older women.

This essay is reprinted with the author’s permission. It appeared originally in Women’s Voices for Change (www.womensvoicesforchange.org).

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Extra Latkes?

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

At the Chanukah party
she was stuffing the extra latkes
deep into her pocketbook.
When a raised eyebrow questioned her,
she explained without guilt,
“Look, I live on a fixed income.
I don’t have money to go to restaurants.
I go to as many Jewish functions as I can,
so who are you to judge me?”
“I didn’t say a word.”
“Your face did.”
She had a point.
Was this any different from
a beggar on the subway
asking for a handout?
She was perhaps more social,
and better dressed, that’s all.
“And the music is free,” she added.
What is wrong with my compassion,
I thought, as I helped myself to another latke.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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