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Yom Kippur Morning 5784 • Tz’dakah

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

This story has many attributions and many versions. This one, slightly edited, is told by Rabbi Larry Kushner.

A long time ago in the Israeli town of S’fat, the richest man in the community was sleeping, as usual, through Shabbat morning services. Every now and then, he would almost wake up, trying to get comfortable on the hard wooden bench, and then sink back into a deep sleep. One morning he awoke just long enough to hear the chanting of the Torah where God instructs the Israelites to place twelve loaves of challah on a table in the ancient wilderness tabernacle.

When services ended, the wealthy man, Nathan, woke up, not realizing that all he had heard was the Torah reading about how God wanted twelve loaves of challah. He thought that God had come to him in his sleep and asked him to personally bring twelve loaves of challah to God. Nathan felt honored that God should single him out, but he also felt a little foolish. Of all the things God could want from a person of his wealth, twelve loaves of challah did not seem very important. But who was he to argue with God. He went home and baked the bread. Upon returning to the synagogue, he decided the only proper place for his holy gift was alongside the Torah scrolls in the ark. He carefully arranged the loaves and said to God, “Thank you for telling me what you want of me.” Then he left.

No sooner had he gone than the poorest Jew in the town, Penina, entered the sanctuary. All alone, she spoke to God. “O Creator of the Universe, I am so poor. My family is starving; we have nothing to eat. Unless You perform a miracle for us, we will surely perish.” Then, as was her custom, she walked around to tidy up. When she ascended the bimah and opened the ark, there before her were twelve loaves of challah! “A miracle!” exclaimed Penina, “I had no idea You worked so quickly! Blessed are You, O God, who answers our prayers.” Then she ran home to share the bread with her family.

Minutes later, Nathan returned to the sanctuary, curious to see what happened to his challah. Slowly he ascended the bimah, opened the ark, and saw that the loaves were gone. “Oh, my God!” He shouted, “You really ate my challah! I thought You were teasing. This is wonderful. You can be sure that I’ll bring another twelve loaves next week – with raisins in them too!”

The following week, Nathan brought a dozen loaves to the synagogue and again left them in the ark. Minutes later, Penina entered the sanctuary. “God, seven loaves we ate, four we sold, and one we gave to charity. But now, nothing is left and, unless You do another miracle, we surely will starve.” She approached the ark and slowly opened its doors. “Another miracle!” she cried, “Twelve more loaves, and with raisins too! Thank You, God; this is wonderful!”

The challah exchange became a weekly ritual that continued for thirty years. And, like most rituals that become routine, neither Nathan nor Penina gave it much thought. Then, one day, the Rabbi, detained in the sanctuary longer than usual, watched Nathan place the dozen loaves in the ark and Penina redeem them. The Rabbi at first was quite bewildered. Then he called the two of them together and told them what they had been doing. “I see,” said Nathan sadly, “God doesn’t really eat challah.” “I understand,” said Penina, “God hasn’t been baking challah for me after all.” They both feared that now God no longer would be present in their lives.

Then the Rabbi asked them to look at their hands. “Your hands,” he said to Nathan, “are the hands of God providing food to the poor. And your hands,” said the Rabbi to Penina, “also are the hands of God, taking gifts from the rich. So, you see, God can still be present in your lives. Continue giving and continue receiving – though Nathan, now you can bring them right to Penina’s home.

“Challahs in the Ark,” as the story is known, exemplifies tz’dakah, which is often translated as “charity.” But tz’dakah is so much more. Charity is defined as “the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need,” or “generosity and helpfulness especially toward the needy or suffering.” Yet, the root of the word tz’dakah is tzedek, the Hebrew word for justice. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof Torah demands of us – justice, justice you shall pursue. And so tz’dakah might be thought of as “righteous giving;” in the Torah, it’s equated with righteous behavior.

On both High Holy Days, our liturgy includes the prayer, Unetaneh Tokef. The essence of the poem-prayer is that the day is sacred, and God is enthroned in mercy in God’s dominion. There God judges us, remembering our deeds. Even the angels recognize God’s power and judgment. And then, we get to the crux: On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die, who by water and who by fire, who by hunger, who by thirst, etc., etc., etc.

At the end, we are comforted: But t’shuvah, t’filah and tz’dakah temper the severe decree.

Last night, I spoke about t’shuvah, repentance; Rosh Hashanah morning, my topic was t’filah, prayer. Tz’dakah, righteous giving or acting, is the one that’s left.

We Jews tend to be well versed regarding the obligations surrounding tz’dakah in their financial guise. They are in the Torah, as we are repeatedly told to take care of the poor and needy, the widow and the orphan. We are given specific examples of how to do this – if we farm, for example, we are to leave the gleanings, the outer edges, of our fields so that the poor may come and take without being seen. In ancient days, our ancestors were told when to make offerings and when to tithe. Everyone, even the poor, must give. And many of us have studied Maimonides’ Ladder of Tz’dakah, in which he ranks the different ways we can assist others. He puts “giving a job” or otherwise helping a person become self-sufficient at the top.

We also understand what it means to act with tz’dakah, in a righteous way. Our tradition tells us repeatedly to visit the sick, welcome guests, and bury those who have died. Our Haftarah portion this morning, words from the prophet Isaiah, challenged us to act righteously, saying:

Is this the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? … No, this is the fast I desire: To … let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.

These laws and texts are fine and good, but they tell us what to do and how to act, not how or why to do so with feeling. I’m not suggesting that the antidote is to post pictures or videos that will pull at our heart strings – you know, the ones with babies, puppies, or kittens, or at the other extreme, showing devastated parts of our globe. No, the heart to which I am referring is the heart that has opened itself up and cultivated a pure desire to give and to keep on giving. Maimonides points out that giving repeatedly is as important as helping a person become self-sufficient.

Most of want to be that repeat giver. No matter how much (or little) spare money or time we have, we imagine ourselves giving generously. We may be shocked to discover when do our taxes that our actual charitable contributions are much less than we thought they would be. It’s similar with time. How often do we sign up to staff a table, bring some food, clean up at the end of an event, or anything else and then back out, come late, or come on time, but with one foot already out the door?

So, what holds many of us back from giving from the heart, not just the head? I would suggest that it’s any number of possibilities, including anger, fear, shame, and guilt.

Let’s start with anger. In a post on the website of the Cleveland Clinic, the author quotes behavioral health therapist Jane Pernotto Ehrman, who reminds us that, “No one really likes being told what to do. Resistance is engrained into our culture and brains from a young age. Everyone has some form of inner rebel that likes to question or do the opposite of what we’re told [or even asked to do].”

Experts call this psychological reactance. It’s your brain’s reaction when you feel or think that your choices are being limited. So, if you are asked to donate to organization X or to volunteer for event Y, you may feel annoyed or angry that someone is trying to tell you what to do with your money or time, even if the asker has no such intent.

For some people, the anger becomes so great that the reaction is to do the opposite, even if it jeopardizes the relationship with the person who asked in the first place. If this is your reaction, and you feel like your freedom of choice is at stake, put yourself on pause. Ask yourself if the person asking of your money or time is really trying to dictate your charitable choices. The answer is virtually always, “no.” Your best bet is to give a simple response of “thanks; I hadn’t considered that organization” or “thanks, but I keep those choices private,” or even just “thanks” will serve you much better.

For other people, the anger isn’t about feeling controlled, but rather, it’s about feeling that your judgment is being questioned. If your spouse suggests that you support an organization that you haven’t in the past, you might be thinking, “Oh, now my spouse objects to the charity we have supported,” while you’re feeling, “What’s wrong with that organization,” code for “What’s wrong with me?”

Your spouse might be thinking, quite innocently, “We both got raises this year and can now support a second worthy organization.” Once again, put yourself on pause. Don’t assume. Don’t shut down or shut out the other person.

It may be that anger isn’t a part of what holds you back. Or it may be that anger is acting as a mask emotion – not the real feeling, but rather, a cover for something that might be harder to bear.

Is it possibl that we don’t open our hearts to give out of fear, not anger? Kris Putnam-Walkerly, a philanthropy advisor and the author of Delusional Altruism: Why Philanthropists Fail to Achieve Change and What They Can Do to Transform Giving, suggests three different possible fears that hold people back from giving with a full heart: fear of being seen, fear of failure, and fear of loss.

Many non-profits proudly acknowledge their donors in some way. Even when you give to an individual, not an organization, that person, for all good reasons, might tell others who has helped them out. Some people who give tz’dakah are afraid that they will be asked repeatedly once their generosity is known – and that they can’t or won’t want to help everyone who asks. Also, when supporting an organization, some people fear being criticized for the choice they made in giving that support. Here’s where trust comes in – trusting yourself as well as the recipient to honor any discretion you ask for.

Another fear is the fear of failure. What if you give to an organization that misuses the money or goes broke? What if you help a person, especially someone you don’t know, who uses the money in a way you believe to be morally wrong? Mistakes happen; let’s hope you can learn from them.

A third fear is the fear of loss – loss of our own money to begin with. This is one reason we are commanded never to give more than we can afford. But the fear of loss goes beyond the material. For some people, there’s a feeling of the loss of control, as the recipient is now in charge. You may think that others see this as a weakness.

The fear of losing face is perhaps another way of saying shame – what I believe to be another reason some of us find it difficult to open our hearts.

I’ll give you an example that touches close to home – people who think they can’t be a part of TBJ because they can’t afford the dues – and feel too much shame to ask for a dues adjustment. Once a member called me in tears saying he couldn’t any longer afford to pay dues and would have to resign. I assured him that contributing $0 a year would keep him a member.

Shame holds some of us back in other ways. The words too many of us heard when we were young – that we weren’t good enough, smart enough, nice enough, and more all effect our sense of self. Those voices don’t just up and leave. So, when we are called upon to give of ourselves, those voices wake up and tell us that whatever we give, whatever we do, it’s never enough.

Connected to shame is guilt. We may hear a simple ask for assistance (“Can you help with the school bake sale” or “Can you take out the trash”) and feel guilt: Guilt that our answer is “no.” Guilt that we didn’t offer in the first place. Guilt that we don’t want to give. If we see a person on the street asking for help, our guilt may extend to our feelings about living in the wealthiest nation in the world yet seeing people suffer.

Let’s return to Unetaneh Tokef for a moment. Tz’dakah may seem to be the easiest of prayer, repentance, and charity to fulfill. And it may very well be if we act with our head and not our heart. We write a check, we volunteer for a few hours, and we’ve done our part. But if we open up our hearts, our tz’dakah will fulfill Torah’s command as Maimonides instructs us – to give repeatedly and cheerfully. His lowest level is giving grudgingly. Chaya Shucat says, “This form of giving is ironically selfish – it is not motivated by … caring or love. ... True tz’dakah is accompanied by warm words and gentleness.”

May those warm words emanate from your heart, so that your tz’dakah reflects who you truly are.

G’mar chatimah tovah, may you be sealed for a good year.

Sun, April 21 2024 13 Nisan 5784