HomePresidents PickReligious LIfeKol Nidre Talk by Leonie Bennett

Rosh Hashanah 2 5775/2014

Without wishing to deflect too much from what I was planning to share with you today, I want to take you back to 1 or 2 of the points raised by Jill  in her address yesterday and build upon them.

Jill told us that she was brought up in a community from Upstate New York where there were 2 synagogues one of which she would " never, never, ever be part of". I wondered what she really meant by that and why that congregation was such a No-No. What can we learn from Jill's experience? She then went to praise the way our community is run and the pride she feels in the way her children are being brought up here.

I also feel very proud of being a part of this community and love the way that Jill and many others make it work so commendably.

Much has been written and said about the Jewish word Tsedakah. Whilst in ordinary terms today, it means no more than generosity to the poor and needy, the legal meaning of word is much wider and incorporates other purposes for the benefit of the community as a whole.

In his Mishnah Torah, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon – more commonly known as the Rambam – talks to us about the 8 levels of charity when dispensing funds to the poor but before we delve into that I would suggest that there perhaps might be one level to be added to the 8. That last one relates to altruism when people give of their time freely and without being asked – like most of us do here.

It is 40 years this month since I first walked into this Shul and it feels that I haven't left since. I have always tried to become fully involved in many aspects of what goes on here and I think I know what makes this community tick.

I think that longevity and acquired insight gives me a duty and responsibility to look beyond what we are now to what we will be in 10 or 20 years' time. But this should be a shared responsibility, a responsibility to take continuity as a serious subject that cannot be ignored.

Yes, we should be justly proud about what we have achieved as a community.

As examples, our Cheder provides a wonderful service to our children; our Chevra Kadishah is incomparable; the introduction of the Mosaic programme was a huge leap forward in enhancing our Jewish cultural knowledge and awareness. But the job is far from done because a glimpse through my crystal ball tells me - and should tell you too - that unless we take some very immediate and drastic steps, in 10 years' time, this community - at least in spiritual terms - will not look anything like it looks today.

We urgently need to look forward and by that I mean much further than the next 12 months. Realistically, 10 years from now, this community will be missing many members who today are giving fully of themselves and I do not see a generation waiting in the wings to take over. This requires us to go much, much further than responding to our various Presidents' annual pleas to contribute, to participate, to fully belong. We have a responsibility to leave this community in a better state than when we first encountered it and that means giving a lot more of ourselves.

So giving of yourself to your community is, indeed, a form of Tsedakah but what is its wider meaning?

One year ago, the new Chief Rabbi, paraphrased Descartes in his address stating that Jewish tradition teaches: "I give, therefore I am". He reminded us of our tradition of Tikkun Olam healing the world (our immediate and wider world) and making it a better place.

So how is this reflected in what we might consider to be the essence of Jewish life? Rabbi Hillel considered this to be "love of man" and the Torah is peppered with references to this.

We may be familiar with ...ואהבת לרעך כמוך .... which we used long before it appeared in Gospel of Mark and is often translated loosely as "Love your neighbour as yourself". However, references on how to perform Tsedakah and how to treat the poor are sprinkled everywhere from the Book of Shemot (Exodus) to the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) and including the post-Biblical writings especially, Mishlé (Proverbs), Tehillim (Psalms), Pirke Avot, the Mishnah, and the Gemarah.

In the community I grew up, whenever someone died we used to say we were "going to a Mitsvah" when we were actually going to a funeral. This act was seen as the most important mitsvah you could perform on any given day. As the body was lowered into the grave, we all said "Mechilah" as we asked for forgiveness for whatever known or unknown transgression we might have committed against the person being buried. Funerals were always packed out.

However, Rabbi Akivah said that the most important mitsvah was Tsedakah. Is there a conflict here? In my view, there is no difference at all in these 2 opinions because by attending a funeral you are in effect being compassionate, and giving of yourself, both accepted meanings of Tsedakah.

That brings me to other ways in which Tsedakah can be interpreted. "Tsedakah" is the Hebrew word for the acts that, in English, we call "charity": giving aid, assistance, and money to the poor and needy or to other worthy causes. But the nature of Tsedakah is very different from the idea of charity.

The English word "charity" with its Latin root 'Caritas' or 'care' suggests benevolence and generosity, a magnanimous act by the wealthy and powerful for the benefit of the poor and needy.

The word "Tsedakah" is derived from its Hebrew root letters צ ד ק which together make up Tsedek, meaning righteousness, justice, or fairness.

In Judaism, giving to the poor is not viewed as a generous, magnanimous act; it is simply an act of justice and righteousness, the performance of a duty, giving the poor their due.

We are brought up as Jews to be generous and we know this to be our duty. The Torah first makes reference to this in the way the Book of Shemot (Exodus) tells us how to treat slaves:

ב   כִּי תִקְנֶה עֶבֶד עִבְרִי, שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים יַעֲבֹד בַשְּׁבִעִת.-- יֵצֵא לַחָפְשִׁי, חִנָּם

2  If you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.

...and in case we missed the message, חנם emphasises it.

 It goes on: .אִם-בְּגַפּוֹ יָבֹא, בְּגַפּוֹ יֵצֵא; אִם- בַּעַל אִשָּׁה הוּא, וְיָצְאָה אִשְׁתּוֹ עִמּוֹ.

3  If he come in by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he be married, then his wife shall go out with him.

This is true generosity even though it is reflected through the practice of slavery which in Jewish terms seemed more like 'servitude'.

By the middle of August I, like many of you, had already received the usual requests for donations from Jewish Care and Magen David Adom. Many others followed soon after, including websites I subscribe to like United with Israel, Honest Reporting.com and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. They were piled up in my study awaiting my attention before Rosh Hashanah.

At about that time, and several weeks after I was invited to address you today, I was walking through Cornmarket and was approached by a Chugger to sign up to Christian Aid. I politely refused and moving on, a man on the pavement asked me for "a few pennies for a cup of tea". I handed over 30p but on return home, I was reminded of Maimonedes' 8 levels of charity - each greater than the next – but I had to look them up to remind myself what these were. It was an interesting exercise.

Level 1, above which there is no greater, is to support your fellow Jew by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others . . .

Level 2, a lesser level of charity is to give to the poor without knowing to whom one gives, and without the recipient knowing from who he received. For this is performing a mitzvah solely לשם שמים ... for the sake of Heaven, a practice that was common at the time of the Temple.

Levels 3 to 7 develop progressively to a point when one gives inadequately, but gives gladly and with a smile.

By Level 8, one is giving unwillingly. But if you are not performing Tsedakah with good grace, you shouldn't do so at all.

I interpreted that the Chugger came in at Level 3, Jewish Care at Level 4 and the beggar at Level 5.

The Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) is a hidden jewel camouflaged into our daily Siddur but which, in this community never seems to see the light of day.

Pirke Avot Aleph – the first chapter – quotes Rabbi Hillel's famous Golden Rule as follows:

            אם אין אני לי, מי לי:  וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני:  ואם לא עכשו, אמתי          

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And being for my own self, what am I? And if not now, when?

As Hillel had stated, whosoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whosoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world."

The sayings of Hillel, that introduce the collection of his maxims in the Pirke Avot, mentions "love of man" as the kernel of Jewish teaching.

We are reminded of the story of the non-Jew who asked that the Torah be explained to him while he stood on one foot. The comparative responses of Hillel and Shamai, illustrate the character differences between the 2 men. Shamai dismissed the man whilst Hillel accepted the question but gently chastised the man saying:

"What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn" – repeating what is said in the Hagaddah צה ולמד . Hillel also recognized brotherly love as the fundamental principle of Jewish moral law.

In ויקרא (Leviticus) 19:9 and 10, we read

9. And when you reap the harvest of your land, thou shall not wholly reap the corner of your field, neither shalt you gather the gleaning of your harvest.

10. And you shall not glean thy vineyard, neither shall thou gather the fallen fruit of thy vineyard; thou shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the LORD your God.

This also has strong resonance with the story of Ruth that we read over Shavuot.

How far Hillel's love of man went, may be seen from an example that shows that benevolence must be given with regard to the needs of the poor. And so, "Hillel provided to a man of good family but who became poor, a riding horse, in order that he not be deprived of his customary physical exercise, and a slave, that he might be served".

I am indebted to Rabbi Ari Enkin from United with Israel for this final part of my address. He tells us that:

"...there is disagreement according to Jewish law, as to how much a person is to give away of his wealth. Is it sinful to give too much charity?"

Five weeks ago we read the Torah portion ראה , meaning, "to see". This portion refers to the requirement for mankind to see how easy it is to live a life full of blessing and happiness.

There are many themes and mitsvot (commandments) in that week's reading, with the importance of charity being one of them. As the Torah says,

7.  "If there be a poor person among you...do not harden your heart nor close your hand tight against your impoverished brother."

8. "You shall surely open your hand to him and provide him with the necessities that he lacks."

As we must surely realise, this is one of the Biblical sources for the requirement to give charity.

But that's not all. The Torah adds, What does it mean to be 'meticulous' in giving charity? This seems to be a call for a higher and more meticulous level of charity not covered by the first verse quoted from Deuteronomy.

Rabbi Enkin uses the following story to illustrate what it means to "open your hand" and to give charity in a much more meticulous manner than is truly required.

In a cemetery in the city of Vilna (Lithuania) a man came across two adjacent graves. According to the inscriptions, the two men were brothers who were both distinct Torah scholars and both extremely charitable.

But something was out of the ordinary. The two tombstones shared an inscription taken from the Book of Proverbs, chapter 31, the Chapter that contains the familiar Eshet Chayil. On the first tombstone it was written, כפה פרשה לעני " she extended her palm (kappah) to the poor". On the second tombstone the verse was completed with the words, וידה שלחה לאביון and she stretched out her hand (yadeha) to the pauper."

This was very odd. Not only is it rare to find two tombstones sharing a single verse or inscription, but the verse that was chosen is traditionally used on the tombstones of females. The man was puzzled and sought assistance from one of the elder members of the community. And indeed, there was a story to share regarding the tombstones.

The brothers were Torah scholars - much respected and admired in the community - but also wealthy and extremely generous. Suddenly, their fortunes took a turn for the worse and some of their businesses failed. People began to wonder why such a thing would happen to such wonderfully generous individuals.  The Rabbinical Court of Vilna heard the stories, decided to question the brothers and discovered only one instance of wrongdoing. The brothers' sin was that they often exceeded what was required of them. Yes, their sin was giving too much charity!

The Rabbinical court decided that the brothers could not be trusted to stay within prescribed limits. So, they themselves took control of the brothers' finances and decreed that all charitable donations must go through them the court. But the poor would protest that the court was not nearly as generous as the brothers themselves. As the brothers didn't have control of their money, they began to give away the silver in their cabinets and eventually, they were left with a single silver spoon between them. The next day, when 2 beggars approached each of the brothers, they broke the last spoon in half. One took the spoon part and gave it to the first beggar, and the other took the handle and gave it to the second beggar.

This wonderful act of charity was memorialized on their tombstones, conveyed by means of a play-onwords. As mentioned, the beginning of the verse on the first tombstone was, "She extended her palm (kappah) (with the aspirational ה) to the poor". kappah also means "her spoon."

The completion of the verse on the second tombstone was, "And she stretched out her hand (yadeha) to the pauper." Yadeha also means "her handle."

In this day of all days let us remember this message and may we try to emulate in some small way the charitable habits of the 2 brothers.

In Pirke Avot 2, we read the precept אל תפרש מן הצבור that one should not separate oneself from one's community. Hillel paraphrases this as " Man should...... always regard himself as a part of the whole", thereby showing the love of man that Hillel taught.

May we continue to give of ourselves for our community and for wider world communities.

May our New Year be blessed with prosperity, together with the joy of giving, and the blessing of generosity.

And in partnership with Hashem.....May your Tsedakah help to heal some of the brokenness of our world.

Shanah Tovah,  Tizku Leshanim Rabot

Isaac Garson, Rosh Hashanah 2, 5775

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