Giving: Not Just for Tuesday

First there was Thanksgiving, a national holiday established by FDR in 1939. (Yes, yes, there was a feast at Plimoth Plantation in 1621, but it wasn’t an annual feast, much less a national holiday until 1939.)

Then there was Black Friday, a day with complicated roots that sometime in the 1980’s came to mean the day consumers began the American frenzy of holiday shopping.

Cyber Monday came into being in 2005, when a marketing team at the National Retail Foundation decided that online retailers needed an advertising hook to kick off the shopping season.

Finally in 2012 the 92nd Street Y in New York City conceived #Giving Tuesday. They wanted to yoke the power of social media to the energy of the “charitable season,”and it seems to be catching on. (“Charitable season” appears to refer to the combination of the approach of the Dec 31 deadline for charitable donation deductions on U.S. income tax and the “spirit of the season.”)

I am not a fan of the annual consumer madness, but “Giving Tuesday” stands my rabbinical hair on end. It is good to remind people to help others, of course, but the message “Giving Tuesday” sends are the antithesis of Jewish teaching on the subject: it’s not Torah.

Jewish concepts of giving have a complex history, but they are rooted in some straightforward mitzvot. The fundamental idea is that giving is not merely charity (the root of which is the Latin caritas, or love) but tzedakah, a form of justice.

Communal Responsibility – The support of the poor is the responsibility of the community. In ancient times through the middle ages, Jews contributed to the kupah, a local fund for the needy. Maimonides wrote in Laws of Gifts to the Poor: “Any fast where the community eats [at the end after sundown], goes to sleep, and did not distribute tzedakah to the poor is like [a community] that sheds blood.”

Give First, not Last – One of the models for Jewish giving is the terumah, the consecration of a portion of the harvest to the upkeep of communal institutions (the Temple priesthood) in ancient Israel. Trumah came “off the top” – it was separated before anything was sold or consumed. Waiting to give until the shopping is done is a mistaken priority and a bad message.

Serving All Comers – Jewish law specifies that communal resources must serve Jews and non-Jews, locals and foreigners. There is no concept of the “deserving poor” – the only qualifier is poverty.

Everyone Contributes – “Communal responsibility” means that everyone contributes something.  The poor give a little bit and the wealthy are expected to give much more. Maimonides teaches: “Even a poor person who lives on tzedakah is obligated to give tzedakah to another.”

Giving Year Round – Giving is not restricted to a single season. Ideally a Jew makes many charitable contributions throughout the year: before the Sabbath, before holy days, in memory of the deceased, in celebration of life cycle events, and in honor of good people.

For Justice, not for Benefit – The Hebrew term for this sort of giving is tzedakah, related to the word for “Justice.” It is a mitzvah, a sacred duty, to relieve suffering. 

Here’s what I’d prefer:

  • I’d like to see tzedakah come before the feast, not after, and certainly before the orgy of gift-shopping and bargains.
  • I’d like to see more teaching about tzedakah as a spiritual discipline, a holy activity, a way of sanctifying our time and treasure.
  • I’d like to see spirited debates about the ethics of tzedakah among adults in our community. Is Maimonides’ ruling that one must give to any person who says he is hungry out of date in a modern urban environment? What do we owe, if anything, to beggars on the street who ask for pocket change?
  • I’d like to see tzedakah taught and observed not as a fundraising ploy, but as part of the structure of mitzvot that sanctify our community, and beyond it, our world.


/end rant



We Have Seen This Before

And if a stranger live with you in your land, you will not do him wrong. – Leviticus 19:33

Possibly the most frequently repeated commandment in the Hebrew Bible is “welcome the stranger.” One of my colleagues, Rabbi Michael Latz, finds it in some form in 36 different places. It is often bolstered with the logic, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” (e.g. Leviticus 19:34) which brings to mind Hillel’s version of the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellows.” (Shabbat 31a)

Today the news is full of suspicion for the Syrian refugees fleeing the disaster of Daesh (aka ISIS, but follow that link to find out why I am not going to call them “Islamic State” anymore.) One of the men who murdered hostages in the Bataclan Theater in Paris carried a Syrian passport and now the cry has gone up: “Don’t take them in, they may be terrorists!”

In places connected to Syria by land masses or the Mediterranean, I can understand the fear. But here in the United States, the border for Syrian travelers is well-defined: it’s a secure area in airports and seaports, and no one gets through unless U.S. Customs and Border Security says they get through. Refugees are subjected to special screening by various offices of several different departments of the government, any of which can turn them down. The process takes 18-24 months; it’s no quickie. If you want to learn more about it, you can do so here.

There was a time in the past when people were desperately trying to flee an evil regime, and we Americans took it upon ourselves to see them all as undesirables: wrong religion, possibly spies, maybe saboteurs! Our ports were firmly closed to them. We actually turned away whole shiploads of them: refugees not wanted.

It emerged, after the war, that the Nazis had manipulated the whole thing: they sent agents to Cuba to aggravate antisemitic feeling there and in the U.S., and spread rumors that some of the refugees were “a criminal element.” Eventually the ship returned to Germany, and the refugees went to the camps, most of them, to their deaths.

Let’s not make the same mistake twice. Check thoroughly everyone who applies for refugee status, by all means, but do not allow Daesh or any other evil regime to manipulate U.S. policy.

And remember, my fellow Jews: we were once strangers fleeing the land of Egypt.

Image: “Women and children Syrian refugees at the Budapest Keleti railway station” taken by Mystslav Chernov. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Jewish Social Skills: Death & Mourning

This afternoon and Wednesday I’m teaching my Intro classes about Jewish Death & Mourning. I am pretty sure that when they look at the syllabus, they are thinking about funerals, and they are mostly identified with (1) the dead person or (2) the mourners. That’s normal and human, to picture a topic with ourselves in the center.

My task as teacher is to teach them how to be members of a Jewish community that has mourners in it. True, sometimes they will be the mourners, and someday every one of us will be in that casket at center stage, but for most of our Jewish lives, we’re in the “mourner support” roles. And face it, that’s where the mitzvahs are.

Yes, it is a mitzvah to bury one’s dead. No doubt about that. But there are many other mitzvot that come under the general heading of “comforting the mourner,” most of which don’t sound like a modern idea of “comforting” at all. Here are ways we comfort the mourner:

  • Support our synagogue, so that there are clergy to assist mourners.
  • Support our local Jewish funeral home, so that Jewish mourners do not have the added stress of explaining everything.
  • Show up at funerals, even for people we barely know.
  • Show up at shiva, even if we are not “close” to the family.
  • Offer to babysit, run errands, wash dishes, answer the door during shiva.
  • Sit quietly with a mourner at shiva, just listening.
  • Refrain from telling mourners how they should feel “by now.”
  • Alert the rabbi if a mourner appears to be slipping into depression or otherwise in trouble.
  • Call or write weeks after the funeral, just to “check in.”
  • Say hello to mourners when we see them at synagogue.
  • Invite widows and widowers to events or to dinner in our homes.
  • Make sure that no mourner in our community feels abandoned.

The English word “comfort” in modern usage generally transmits an image of a pat on the back, accompanied by “there, there” or magical words of healing. Grief cannot be fixed by magical means. It can only happen in its own time. We can help by supporting, by being present to the mourner.

Those of us who have been mourners know how important this sort of support can be. Perhaps we received it; perhaps we didn’t. One route to self-healing is to take our sadly-won knowledge and turn it outward, making sure that the next mourner is not left to grieve alone.

Visiting the Sick: It’s a Mitzvah!

Bikkur cholim (bee-KOOR khoh-LEEM) is the mitzvah of visiting the sick. It’s one of those mitzvot from the to-do list in the morning service, those “obligations without a limit” that reward us both in this world, and in the world-to-come. Often we can become stuck between our wish to do a mitzvah, and our wish to be sensitive to the needs of the sick person.

Here are some things to do that will help:

  1. Cards and notes are always helpful. I had no idea how powerful a get-well card could be until I was the recipient. Cards and notes always arrive at a good time, and they never intrude. Especially for someone who is very sick or tired, they are a wonderful choice. You can send a get-well card even to someone you know only slightly, and it will still do them a world of good.
  2. In person visits can be powerful, if they are done properly. Some things to remember about in-person visits:
    1. Arrange the visit ahead of time. Call ahead, or use email to set a good time. Do not just “pop in” because you were “in the neighborhood.” 
    2. Keep visits short: 15 minutes tops, 5 minutes if the person is very sick or looks tired.
    3. Keep it low key. Bring good wishes and pleasant talk. Don’t be afraid of silence.
    4. Avoid medical discussion. Do not quiz the patient about the doctor or the diagnosis. Do not criticize or share medical stories. It can be very tempting to share knowledge, but it is more likely to do harm than to help.
    5. Avoid telling them how they should feel. They may be grateful to be alive, or furious to be sick. They may be angry with God, or full of blessings. Just meet them wherever they are, even if you are uncomfortable with their emotions. (Remember, you aren’t staying long, anyway.)
    6. Listen. The patient may want to talk about the medical situation. This can fill many needs. If something sounds “off,” suggest that they talk about it with their doctor. Again, don’t offer diagnoses or advice.
    7. Offer help, but take direction. It is great to offer to water flowers or do small tasks, but if the patient says, “no,” honor their wishes. One aspect of illness is helplessness: don’t make them feel more helpless by disregarding their boundaries.
    8. Appropriate touch can be wonderful. The touch of your hand on theirs can be very healing, if it is possible. Touching other body parts can be intrusive, however.
    9. Offer prayer. With many Jews, this may take the form of wishing them a “Refuah Shleimah” [a complete healing] without any explicit reference to prayer. However, if they want to pray and you are up for it, go ahead. Again, be sensitive to their comfort.
  3. Other ways to help a sick person:
    1. Check in with caregivers. Do they need help or support? Often the caregiver can tell you ways you can help or errands you can run. Remember to support them, not lean on them.  Do not burden the caretaker with your fears or misgivings. Do not tell them what to do, or how to do things differently.
    2. Make sure the rabbi knows that this person is sick. Unfortunately, HIPPA laws in the US make it impossible for hospitals to notify the rabbi when a congregant is ill. The rabbi will want to know! Call and tell them.
    3. Make a donation in the sick person’s honor to synagogue or charity. Especially in a long illness, this can help connect them with the outside world.

One sure thing: all of us get sick sometimes, even the healthiest people. Whether it is a small temporary thing or a life-threatening illness, or a chronic trouble that goes on for years, human contact can provide relief and strength. The Torah and our tradition put a high value on bikkur cholim precisely because it can make such a difference in the quality of a person’s life.

It happened that one of Rabbi Akiva’s pupils became ill, and the Rabbis did not come to visit him. But Rabbi Akiva did visit him, and because Rabbi Akiva swept and sprinkled the floor before him, he lived. The sick man said to him: “Master, you have given me new life!” – Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 40a

My Daily Reminder: Pick a Mitzvah

One of my favorite moments in the daily service comes near the beginning of the morning blessings:

These are the obligations without a limit. A person eats their fruit in this world, and sets up a reward in the world to come as well:

To honor father and mother;
To perform acts of love and kindness;
To attend the house of study morning and evening;
To receive guests;
To visit the sick;
To rejoice with the bride and groom;
To accompany the dead;
To pray with intention;
To bring peace between a person and his fellow.
And the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all!

I love this because it is a checklist of those things which are a good use of my time and energy, but which might slip by me otherwise.

To honor father and mother – The word we usually translate as “honor” is Ka-BAYD – literally, to give weight. It doesn’t mean “obey” – rather, it means to make sure that one’s parents do not suffer from deprivation and humiliation.

To perform acts of love and kindness – Covers a lot of territory, doesn’t it? Notice that those acts are not limited to one’s family, or friends, or worthy people, or other Jews. Even when we must say “no” to someone, we must do so kindly.

To attend the house of study – Most of us do not have the luxury of full time Torah study. Even if we cannot study “morning and evening” we can carve out a moment every day for a bit of learning. There are many online resources that offer such opportunities, like 10 Minutes of Talmud and My Jewish Learning.

To receive guests – This can be done in the abstract, by supporting organizations, but it can also be done on a personal level: invite people over! Our Jewish homes are sacred space. We can share that holiness by welcoming others into them for a cup of tea or a meal.

To visit the sick – “Visiting” can take many forms. A quick visit in person can be very comforting to a sick person. But we can also “visit” via a phone call, an email, or a get-well card.

To rejoice with the bride – The rabbis tell us that even if a bride is homely, the white lie to tell her that she looks great is part of our obligation to rejoice at weddings. As a modern liberal Jew, I expand this obligation to every wedding couple: on this day, they are beautiful and I am happy for them.

To accompany the dead – Most translations say “to comfort the mourner” but that is actually a separate obligation. This one has to do with making sure that the body of the dead person makes it safely into the earth – attending funerals, and giving tzedakah so that indigent people can be buried with dignity. It also reminds us to comfort mourners, by showing up for funerals, attending shiva, and by speaking to them in ways that are actually comforting.

To pray with intention – For me, this means praying a short form of the daily service. For others it might mean a Jewish meditation practice, or the Bedtime Shema, or saying blessings regularly. For others, it might mean attending daily minyan at a local synagogue. But for all of us it means cultivating an awareness of the Holy, however we understand it.

To bring peace between a person and his fellow – It’s so easy to say, and so hard to do. It means paying attention, watching for opportunities to make peace and seizing those opportunities when they appear. It also means supporting peacemakers on the larger stage: voting for politicians who value peace over power and who know how to make a viable compromise.

The study of Torah is the greatest of them all, because it leads to them all – Learning Torah and thinking about it in personal terms will change us. We will recognize opportunities for peace, we will feel comfortable at a funeral, we will see the openings for acts of love and kindness. Studying Torah will provide us with role models: Abraham, our model for hospitality and Isaac, a model for prayer and Rebekah, who was kind to people and even to animals.

There’s a line in the Reform prayer book:

Those who study Torah are the guardians of civilization.

Honestly, the first time I read this in the service, it made me smile. I thought about my Torah study group, munching their bagels and arguing about each line in the parashah. It was pretty funny to think of them as “guardians of civilization.” Then I thought about the individuals. One guy was so passionate about feeding the hungry that he founded a Thanksgiving food drive that gathers thousands of pounds of food every year for the food bank. Another woman was always ready with homemade soup in her freezer for someone sick. Another woman was in politics, sincerely interested in making our city better. A retired mathematician in the group has become an expert on taharah, ritual washing of the dead, co-authoring a book that teaches about that mitzvah. Two of us left to become rabbis. And so on. That one Torah study group had gone on for over 25 years, and many of the people in it have been transformed by Torah, choosing work or volunteer activities that do indeed make our city a more civilized place in which to live.

I wish I could say that I live up to every item on this list. The truth is, no one does all of these things every day. Still it reminds me of the possibilities for holiness that lurk in my schedule, and it challenges me to fill my days with goodness. The rewards are both in this life and in the way I will someday be remembered: a world made better.

Not a small thing.

The Secret of Showing Up

One of my favorite lines, too, Rabbi Adar! What an eloquent argument this post is for the discipline of regular worship. I compare it to a good bye kiss in the morning. Sometimes it is just perfunctory, but sometimes insets of a WOW spark. But if we didn’t do it every morning, we would not be positioned for the WOW! Thank you! – A comment on Turn it Again, Ben! by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

Rabbi Fuchs’ comment ties together my two previous posts: the one cited above and the previous one, Jewish Spirituality.

The performance of mitzvot [commandments] is of its nature routine. I say a blessing, I get out of bed, I say a blessing, I wash my hands, I say a blessing, I eat a muffin, I say a blessing, I take my meds. Most of it happens “on automatic” and is about as exciting as brushing my teeth (for which I do not yet know a blessing.) This week I’m going to host students for Shabbat dinner, so I’ve also got all of those preparations (clear the dining room/study table, check my lists, cook) and they, too, have a routine feel to them.

This routine of mitzvot sets up opportunities for what Rabbi Fuchs calls “the WOW!” Most days saying my prayers is a routine. Last Shabbat, one of those routine prayers reduced me to tears of amazement. I didn’t know when I left home for services that I was going to have that experience. Actually, I wasn’t feeling all that great and might have stayed home, except that I had committed to chant the first aliyah of the Torah portion.

Woody Allen once said that “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”  Jewish spiritual activity definitely works that way, whether we’re talking about prayer or some other mitzvot. On any given day, I’m probably not going to get any kind of spiritual insight or “high” from giving tzedakah or saying blessings. There are many mitzvot I may do for my entire life and never have an experience that anyone would call spiritual.

However, if I want to have a sense of meaning in my life, every mitzvah that I observe is a step in that direction. This past week my prayer practice gifted me with an insight: every breath is precious. That was worth all the mere “showing up” that got me to that place. Even without that insight, every mitzvah I observe is like a single strand in a spider’s web that forms a small essential part of the greater whole. Those mitzvot performed with the right intention will shape me into a better person living a better life than I would otherwise live.

This Shabbat I expect to be very, very tired but to be filled with a warm feeling from feeding my students and performing the mitzvah of hospitality. Or maybe I’ll just be very tired. That’s OK. I’ll show up, and they’ll show up, and that will be enough.

Jewish Spirituality

I sometimes meet Jews who tell me, “Judaism just isn’t spiritual!” Others think that there’s only one authentic way to live a Jewish life, a way that demands that a devout Jew will live completely separate from the secular world.

Both of those attitudes are based on profound misunderstandings of Torah.

It’s true that Judaism is different from other religions, especially those familiar to most Americans. A few ways we are different:

We do not have a creed: we don’t have a list of things we are required to believe. Because other Western religions have creeds, we periodically try to come up with such lists, but in every case, as soon as the list is written, we begin arguing about the details. The 13 Principles of Maimonides is the most famous but it isn’t universally accepted among Jews. The Reform Movement has compiled “Platforms” at intervals in its history, but they function more as texts for study, and as jumping-off places for discussion. They are not creeds.

We are a questioning people, rather than a believing people. This has been true from the very beginning. In Genesis 18, God consults with Abraham about the destruction of Sodom. Abraham then raises questions about the fate of the righteous of Sodom, if any can be found. In fact, our sages taught that God chose Abraham to be the patriarch of Israel, rather than Noah, because Noah didn’t argue when God announced the Flood!

The commandments direct us to do, rather than to believe. The Torah is full of commandments (the traditional count is 613.) Those commandments say things like “Keep the Sabbath holy.” (Exodus 20:8) or “Put a railing around your roof, so no one will fall off” (Deuteronomy 22:8) or “Don’t consume blood” (Lev. 17:10-14.) These are things to do (or not do) rather than things to believe.  Even when it comes to God, we are told to love God, but nowhere does it explicitly say to believe in God.


For Jews, spirituality comes in the round of observing the commandments day after day, week after week. We are back to disagreement and discussion: some observe the commandments in ways more or less like the ways Jews very long ago observed them. Others find those interpretations of the commandments outmoded and in need of reinterpretation. One Jew will refrain from ever using the phone or any electronic device on Shabbat. Another will make sure to phone family and loved ones every Shabbat. Both are trying to keep Shabbat holy, each in their own way.

For some Jews, the synagogue service is key to spirituality. For others, the act of communal study (another commandment) is where they find spirituality. Others find it in appreciation and preservation of the wonders of nature, or in the work of healing or social justice. For the last couple of years, I’ve been pursuing growth in the mitzvah of hospitality, opening my home, nurturing relationships among people, feeding other people, and teaching Jewish home observance. Jewish tradition is vast, and it can accommodate many different tastes and personalities. What all these things have in common is the observance of mitzvot.

Which mitzvot are the keys to your Jewish spirituality? If you aren’t sure about the answer to that, experiment. Go to services regularly for a few months, and see what that does for you. Join a social action group or organization (do more than give money or share social media) and see how that feels. Find a Torah study group, or a Talmud study group. See where your Jewish soul blooms.