TZEDAKAH: The opportunity that giving of charity presents us
Summertime, and the living is easy
Fish are jumping and the cotton is high
Your daddy’s rich and your mama’s good looking
So hush little baby don’t you cry.
The pleasures of summer are upon us. We play and we vacation and we try to forget about the world’s problems. But of course we see problems all around us–Earthquakes in Nepal and Ebola in Africa. Disasters both natural and man-made– train wrecks, plane crashes and war ravaged countries, which summon us to respond with our generosity. When disaster strikes we are driven by altruistic impulses to help in any way we can to lessen pain and to limit the damage. But our tradition advises us that tzedakah is something that must be given consistently and reflexively, not just in crisis but as a moral imperative and as a constant.
Tzedakah is a mitzvah that requires a person to give charity to the degree they are able. A person violates a negative commandment when he ignores a specific need for giving charity, but he violates the positive mitzvah if he or she doesn’t give at least a little bit yearly toward the benefit of others. There are degrees of tzedakah. The higher degrees of tzedakah are when we give eagerly and anonymously; the highest degree when we get someone a job or an interest-free loan to become financially stronger. Tzedakah must be given by everyone, even the poor, but not to the extent that they then need to panhandle for tzedakah themselves. Tzedakah is limited, on the high end, to 1/5 of one’s wealth, generally, and 2/5, in the case of the super wealthy. But of course that is the highest degree of generosity allowed, yet not required. Our sages tell us that Tzedakha mekarevet et Hageula, charity brings redemption near. Jerusalem is redeemed by tzedakah, and tzedakah is equal to all the other mitzvoth combined. One Hasidic sage reminds us that in the “atbash" method, in which letters are equated with others from the opposite side of the alphabet א-ת,ב-ש, tzedakah הדקצ is equal to its adbash analogue, צקדה, telling us that giving to tzedakah is as wonderful for the receiver as it is to the giver!
SHAVUOTH: THE HOLIDAY OF THE RECEIVING OF THE TORAH
Our rabbis wonder why Shavuoth, the major festival that occurs seven weeks-and-a-day after Pesach, is never referred to in the Torah as Hag Matan Torah, the holiday in which the Torah is given. Instead, it is referred to as Shavuoth "weeks" or Hag HaBikurim, the "holiday of first fruits." One answer is that the Bible is set in an agricultural society, with the beginning of the harvest as a major event. Another answer is that we need a constant reminder that our freedom is given to us not by our own hands but by God, who brought us out of Egypt. As we bring our first crops to the Temple, we should remember and give gratitude to the God of Israel for bringing us into this fertile land to be His people.
Two other very important reasons are given for the Bible not focusing on Chag Matan Torah, the holiday of the Giving of the Torah. The first is that to receive Torah, one must be humble. The Torah, like water, travels to the lowest place, and one must rid oneself of pride (know-it –all-ness), if one is to receive it. Therefore, the Torah models this humility by not trumpeting it's own importance!
The other is THAT THE TORAH WAS AND ALWAYS IS BEING GIVEN. The Torah is always available for those who are open to receive it. God himself referred to it when He created the world! It was there thousands of generations even before the creation of the world. It's just that humanity, until the time of Abraham and Sara, and later, in a collective fashion at Sinai, did not have a 'spiritual antenna' sufficiently strong enough to RECEIVE IT. And perhaps that is why it is not referred to in the Torah as the “Holiday of the giving of the Torah.” From the Torah's point of view, it was being constantly given, but sadly not being noticed. And so tradition has it, it was treasured by the angels, but not applied until the time of Sinai.
The Midrash adds that the Torah continues to radiate out from Sinai to beckon us; to reveal its truth every single day. A bat kol–a voice from Sinai, continues to thunder from Sinai saying, "my children, oh obtuse ones, come home, return to your God.” Humanity and the Jewish people, distracted in their many day-to-day pursuits, are also not “tuned in” to the ever undulating fountain of insight that our Torah continues to offer us. The Torah, therefore, was, is, and continues to be given, and so the name “The Day of the Giving of the Torah,” would be a misnomer.
We just finished celebrating the wonderful, meaningful and family oriented holiday of Passover and we now look forward to the holiday of Shavuot. This particular holiday is, at times, referred to as the "forgotten" Jewish holiday for quite a few reasons. I believe that probably the most important reason being the fact that there are very few significant and tangible observances or traditions which embellish Shavuot as compared to most of our other holidays.
Rosh Hashanah: We sound the shofar and it's officially our Jewish new year.
Yom Kippur: We fast for 25 hours and it's our final opportunity to beseech G-d for forgiveness.
Sukkot: We build a Sukkah and eat/dwell in it. We also shake the lulav and etrog.
Simchat Torah: This is a major celebration of dancing with the Sifrei Torah (Torahs) and we end and immediately begin the reading of the Torah.
Passover: We do not eat chametz, we celebrate with wonderful seders and so much more.
Shavuot: No real tangible or terribly significant observances. A custom is to eat cheese blintzes, which signify the Torah and the fact that like the cheese on the inside, our observance and study of Torah should also be sweet and enjoyable. Another custom being the fact that we don't eat meat, but rather, dairy products.
Possibly, however, Shavuot should be one of the most important of all Jewish Holidays! We refer to this beautiful chag as: Z'man matan torateinoo, the time that we, the Jewish people received the Torah. In the reading of the Torah on Shavuot, we recount the story of Moses and the Jewish people being the chosen nation to receive and observe the Torah. What single event in our history is more important? I am not sure about you, but most certainly I believe that no other event in our history is more earth-shattering than the events at Mount Sinai and the people of Israel receiving the Torah from G-d.
Please check out the calendar and join us on Shavuot as we together will celebrate TORAH and our amazing history since that time.
I’ve had an amazing first year as your ENJC President, witness to and part of some exceptional experiences and initiatives that make our synagogue the truly outstanding place we know it to be. It’s so rewarding to sit on the bima as our young teens become bar and bat mitzvah with such skill and poise. Our Religious School continues to grow with each passing year. We are in the process of refinancing our mortgage, which will improve our financial position for the future. You’ll notice improvements to our building as well. New outdoor lighting has been installed adjacent to the sanctuary doors, the Religious School, and in the parking lot. These high-efficiency sensor lamps will aid in lowering our electrical usage and costs.
Of course the year has held many challenges as well. Low turnout for our Purim celebration, for instance, due to an unexpected snow storm, was very disappointing; and the ongoing need for attendance at minyanim, which is a situation so many Long Island synagogues face, is something you can help to alleviate by making a conscious effort to attend more services.
As another year begins, I am appreciative of the efforts of our Board Members, synagogue clergy and staff, Religious School teachers and our congregants to prepare for the upcoming holidays, services and programming that make the ENJC a thriving and bustling center of activity for spiritual support and familial and community collaboration. It’s going to be a great year at the ENJC–I look forward to seeing you there!
A beautiful teaching by The Brisker Rav (Yizkak Zev Halevi Soleveichick) explains some important lessons we can glean from the four special Shabbatot that we observe on our way to Passover. These are the Sabbaths Shekalim, Zachor, Parah, and Hahodesh, in which we orient to the holidays of Purim and of Passover.
On Shekalim we read about the half shekel that every Israelite was to give yearly for the fixing and maintenance of the Holy Temple. On Zachor we read about remembering Amalek, the enemy that sought to destroy us. On Parah we concentrate on the ashes from the roan cow ritual, used to purify us when we have come into contact with a decease person and allow us to make a Pesach offering in the Temple court. And on Hahodesh we remember when all of Israel stood shoulder to shoulder, ready to do God's bidding by slaughtering a sheep and using it's blood to mark their doorways before the exodus from Egypt.
These Sabbaths, the Brisker held, reinforce the teaching of the Mishna Avoth, in which Ben Zoma said the following: Who is truly wise? He or she who learns from every person. Who is truly strong? He or she who conquers their selfish impulse. Who is truly wealthy? He or she who is content with what he or she has. Who is truly honored? He or she who sets out to honor every one else. Shabbat Shekalim teaches us that in the end, all Israel was equal in maintaining the holy temple no matter how wealthy, as they shared the burden equally. What is important is the zeal one offers from the wealth they have. Shabbat Zachor teaches that no matter how powerful Amalek was, we could not be defeated if we remained vigilant and reinforced with faith. Amalek can also exist inside a person–his or her selfish impulse seeking to ambush us. We, too, need to be vigilant and prepared against it by conquering that impulse. Shabbat Parah teaches that no matter how wise one is, even someone as wise as King Solomon, there are unknowables in the Torah and in life for which there are no known answers. Only God has the answers. Shabbat Hahodesh teaches that all of Israel worked together and honored each other by working in concert and in solidarity “for the sake of heaven” and for their own sake. It was that unity that sprung them from their enslavement. It not only got them from Egypt, it began the process of getting “the Egypt” out of them.
As Pesach approaches and as we inhabit this holy time, let's be more fully alert to opportunities we have to honor “one another” this year, an in so doing, find our purest honor:
1) We have an opportunity to work for those who are downtrodden through our food drives and the tikun olam work we do on behalf of those who are in need. Our Torah reminds us 36 times to “love the stranger, because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”
2) We have an opportunity to honor and support our minyan of daily and weekly Shabbat davenners, and on Friday and Shabbat mornings, who so want your added presence and support. Let's not lose sight that ENJC is, at it's core, a faith community that finds it's primary purpose in providing a “community of faith.” When this weakens, our mission is weakened.
3) On April 15th this year at 7 pm., we have an opportunity to honor fellow Jews whose lives were cut short by a Holocaust brought upon us by enemies who sought our annihilation. Honoring their memory has become a new obligation of the Jewish calendar each year on Yom Hashoah. This year we will view the moving film Pola's March and have our young people join us in a special reading of children's poetry. Be a part of it.
Everyone of us finds his or her greatest honor in the manner in which we honor others. May this be an insight that we put into practice more these coming weeks, months and years.