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Talmudic Treasures by Rabbi Ziona Zelazo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Monday, August 31, 2020

 

Yevamot 121a: Swimming in the rough waters of crisis

     Crisis is a term everyone I know is familiar with and experiencing it. It is something that has been around in each generation, going back all the way to Biblical times. We know that a “crisis” can take many different shapes and forms; counting from personal, to social collective, and to global platforms. I imagine that many of us consider the COVID-19 as being present in all of these platforms. Its also being manifested on the physical, emotional, psychological, economic, political, nationwide and worldwide levels.

    There are different ways how to handle crisis. Each one of us deals with challenges and struggles in their own way. Some internalize the issues, others seek to have conversations that might relief emotions, or others just fear with panic. It is not my intention to point a finger to any one way to actually manage a crisis, but I have 2 midrashim from Talmud Bavli, which demonstrate to us the main points I raised.

 Have a look at these stories from Yevamot 121a;

Story 1:

“Rabban Gamliel said: Once I was traveling on a boat, and I saw a boat that shattered and I was grieved over the Torah scholar who was on board. And who was it? Rabbi Akiva. But when I disembarked onto dry land, he came, and sat, and deliberated before me about halakha. I said to him: My son, who brought you up? He said to me: A plank from the boat came my way, and to every wave that approached me I nodded my head".

...........

Story 2:

“Rabbi Akiva said: Once I was traveling on a boat, and I saw a certain boat sinking at sea, and I was grieved over the apparent death of the Torah scholar who was on board. And who was it? Rabbi Meir. But when I disembarked at the province of Cappadocia, he came, and sat, and deliberated before me about halakha. I said to him: My son, who brought you up from the water? He said to me: One wave carried me to another, and that other wave to another, until I reached the shore, and a wave cast me up onto dry land.”                                                                                            

    These stories, which show up on the same page of the Gemara, seem to have a lot in common. First, the rabbis use water as the metaphor for crisis. Interesting. Water could be life giving and cleansing, and at the same time – it could also be dangerous with uncertainty. So, although the challenging experiences, the rabbis survived the harsh waves.

Secondly, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir survived from drowning at sea. Both were respected rabbis that were cherished by their teachers; Rabban Gamliel, who was Rabbi Akiva’s teacher, and Rabbi Akiva, who was Rabbi Meir’s teacher. And thirdly, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir did not resist the waves. There was no panic and no fighting back. They saved their energy to focus on what can be their inner strength to help them survive. Focus on the NOW.

 So what is the difference between these 2 stories?

 At first glance, we will notice that what is different is “a different attitude to the crisis”.

 In Rabbi Akiva’s case, he holds on to a board that fell off the boat. It is said “daf” which in Hebrew refers to a page in the Torah. He is holding on the essence of Torah, which means - faith. And when nodding to each wave that passes he shows gratefulness that he survived just another wave. This is also a source of strength to accept the reality as is. I imagine that when accepting a crisis, it might be easier to deal with it later.

 In Rabbi Meir’s case, who is also holding his position and just allowing the waves to carry him closer and closer to shore, we see how he shows his acceptance to the crisis by “going with the flow”.

 Rabbi Akiva was active, while Rabbi Meir was passive. Hope, faith, surrender… can work if we choose to.

   What I learnt from these 2 stories about myself is that I will not judge or condemn someone who deals with crisis in a different way than I do. I will remember that although there are different ways to deal with crisis, there is also a way to reach out to those who struggle, to show them they are not alone, and demonstrate care and compassion.

What about you? Any other comments you can share?

 

Monday, August 12, 2019

TB Sanhedrin 97a - Hear the truth even if it hurts? Part 2


Wouldn’t it be great if we could live in a world which is all justfull, peaceful and truthful in the interactions between people? Yes, this is the IDEAL world, but not the ACTUAL world. I think it is fair to say that man’s nature is to lie or to be false — as King David cried out, “all men are liars” (Psalm 116:11), and see the verse “Stay far away from a lie” in Exodus 23:7. In the real world, there are different reasons to lie, and even Halacha allows times when we are permitted to lie, in order to ensure peaceful human interactions. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953 Orthodox rabbi, Talmudic scholar, and Jewish philosopher of the 20th century) also argues that, “Sometimes it is necessary to deviate from the truth, such as when the truth will not help but will cause injury.”

The rabbis were struggling with this ongoing friction. It is expressed in the next Talmudic parable about an imaginary and ideal land called Kushta (the Aramaic word for "truth"). No one ever lies, and as a result, no one dies before their time. When a visitor tells a neighbor that his wife is not home, in order not to embarrass her by stating that she is washing her hair, his two sons die. The Kushtaites expel this person. Even in the IDEAL world a LIE existed.

TB Sanhedrin 97a
Concerning the lack of truth, Rava says: Initially I used to think that there is no truth in the world. [1]
There was one of the Sages, and Rav Tavut is his name, and some say Rav Tavyomei is his name[2] who was so honest that if they were to give him the entire world, he would not deviate from the truth and would not lie.
He (Rav Tavut) related the following story to me (Rava):
One time he came to that place and Kushta was its name, and they would not tell a lie, and no one from there ever died before their time.

Rav Tavut married a woman from among them, and had two sons from her.

One day his wife was sitting and washing the hair on her head. Her neighbor came and knocked on the door.

He thought: It is not proper conduct to tell the neighbor that his wife is bathing.

He said: She is not here. [3]
Since he deviated from the truth his two sons died.

The people residing in that place came before Rav Tavut and said to him: “What is the meaning of this?”[4]
He said to them: “This was the nature of the incident”, and told them what happened.

They said to him: “Please leave our place and do not provoke premature death upon these people”.
This imaginary story is amazing. Here, TRUTH is equated with LIFE and A LIE is equated with DEATH. To state that not telling the truth and death are synonymous is powerful. It raises many questions;

Did Tavut’s children die as a result of divine punishment?

Doesn’t it seem that the punishment exceeds the severity of telling a harmless lie?

Why did Rav Tavut shake the moral and value system of Kushta? Was he ignorant of the norms in Kushta? Or was he aware of it but his wife’s privacy was more important? I am sure that what Rav Tavut did would have been accepted in an ordinary society. But note that the people of Kushta only expelled him from town as he could not commit to their society’s norms and did not belong there. They did not expect him to change.

OR-Perhaps this parable comes to caution us about the impact of a lie and what could happen to people when they tell a lie… That when you lie you put extra stress and worries in your life, that once you tell one lie you will be drawn to tell another… and another? And as a result, people can die before their time? In Kushta no lies, no stress, no premature death.

Kushta is a legend of the ideal world, not the real world. In the real world, the “black and white” thinking is not possible. One cannot simultaneously live in the Land of Truth and also in the Lands of Justice and Peace. The challenge is to know how to operate in the “grey area” and avoiding the stressful impact of not being truthful. It seems like it is actually moral to be in the grey area.

Would you be happy to live in Kushta?
------------------------------------------

[1] The story begins with the denial of the existence of truth in the world. This is quite a striking claim. Is there really “no truth in the world”? Rashi notes that Rava was lamenting that there is nobody who always speaks the truth and nothing but the truth.
[2] Whose very name means “good” or perhaps “good every day”. This name does not appear anywhere else in the Talmud but here.
[3] Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910 – 1995, Israeli Orthodox rabbi, posek, and rosh yeshiva of the Kol Torah yeshiva in Jerusalem) ruled that one may have a member of the household tell an uninvited guest, or caller, on the phone that the “master” is not home – even if he is. One is under no obligation to see or speak to someone just because they would like to speak to you—though depending on the circumstances, it may be the correct thing to do.
[4] But what is reasonable everywhere else is not so in Kushta. The people of Kushta were people who could not tolerate a lie under any circumstances regardless of the reason.






Thursday, August 1, 2019

Ketubbot 16b-17b - Hear the truth even if it hurts? Part 1


     In an Esquire article entitled “I Think You’re Fat”, A.J. Jacobs reports on his one month experiment he calls “radical honesty.” He told the truth in situations in which he normally would have lied. He found that people actually do tolerate truth, and that it opened the door to truthful responses from his friends and colleagues.

     But, when his old friend’s wife died, Jacobs could not tell him that he did not care for the poems that he [his friend] sent him for his opinion. Jacobs lied, saying they are very good. Despite his commitment to the truth, he says, “I can’t trash the old man.”

At the end of the month, Jacobs concluded that had he been honest 100 percent of the time, rather than the 90 percent he achieved, he “would have gotten beaten up, fired, and divorced.”

     To be honest, this essay resonates with me. Being an Israeli, I did not know what a “white-lie” is. I was “honest” with people, until I realized (as I became more and more Americanized) that this has to stop. I found that there is more cost than benefit associated with complete honesty. Being honest means at times to humiliate people or hurt their feelings. A ‘white lie’ can establish peace.

     I am still conflicted. Truth and peace reflect opposing ethical values. These are in a constant state of conflict. Is there a way to bridge between the two?

     There are many stories In the Talmud, which illustrate this conflict. I will start with the famous disagreement between the schools (Beit) of Hillel and Shammai. They debated the question: How does one praise a bride on her wedding day, especially if she is not the perfect looking bride? Beit Shammai favors truth, whereas Beit HiIlel prefers peace.

TB Ketubbot 16b-17a 

“The Sages taught: How does one dance before the bride? i.e., what does one recite while dancing at her wedding?
     Beit Shammai say:
One recites praise of the bride as she is, emphasizing her good qualities.
     And Beit Hillel say: One recites: ‘A fair and attractive bride’.
Beit Shammai said to Beit Hillel: In a case where the bride was lame or blind, does one say with regard to her: A fair and attractive bride? But the Torah states: “Keep you from a false matter” (Exodus 23:7).
     Beit Hillel said to Beit Shammai: According to your statement, [with regard to one who acquired an inferior acquisition from the market], should another praise it and enhance its value in his eyes or condemn it and diminish its value in his eyes? You must say that he should praise it and enhance its value in his eyes and refrain from causing him anguish.”


     The details of the wedding etiquette make us think deeper. Perhaps they come to teach us about human nature. We all face these dilemmas. Sometimes we need to be like Hillel and use ‘white lies’ to bring peace, and sometimes we need to be like Shammai, to stay with the truth and honesty. Even though in the end of the story, the rabbis side with Hillel and prefer that one tells a ‘white lie’, it is also clear that 
Shammai is not rejected by our tradition, and is included by the students of Hillel.

     This is about balance and discernment. If we use too many white lies, it will destroy trust between people. If we are too honest all the times, we will not have friends...

Let us ask; Is it always necessary to be a 100 percent honest all the time? 

Is it beneficial? 
Is being considerate without hurting someone is actually more beneficial?

....and oh... who would want Rabbi Shammai at their wedding...?:))

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Sanhedrin 92b - Music and Song in the Key of Life


     Music is important in my life for many reasons. It helps me create certain emotions whether happy, calm, sad, angry, scared, etc. It makes me feel productive while I work, and it facilitates a holly connection to the divine while I meditate. Many will claim that music is also magical and therapeutic, like a medicine. 

     Indeed, science confirms that music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human function. May it be so, the use of music can be traced as far as the biblical times. We are familiar, for example, with the song Moses sang right after the exodus from Egypt, or the dance song that Miriam did with musical instruments.

     Here is an interesting insight about the life force of music, written by my guest writer, Rabbi Steven J. Rubenstein, BCC, director of chaplaincy services at the Jewish Senior Life, in Rochester, New York

In Ezekiel 37:5-12 we read;

5. Thus said GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live again.

6. I will lay sinews upon you, and cover you with flesh, and form skin over you. And I will put breath into you, and you shall live again. And you shall know that I am the LORD!”


     God re-connected the bones of all those individuals whose lifeless bodies were buried in the valley below. God gave them muscles and sinew, and then attached flesh before blowing the breath of life into their inanimate bodies.

     This might reflect a story of hope and the spiritual resurrection of God’s people. But we do not know what happened to these people who were revived. Ezekiel stops there. Were they really ALIVE?

     The sages of the Talmud asked this same question and tried to find answers. In Tractate Sanhedrin 92b we find an interesting commentary;

דתניא ר"א אומר מתים שהחיה יחזקאל עמדו על רגליהם ואמרו שירה ומתו. מה שירה אמרו? ה' ממית בצדק ומחיה ברחמים ר' יהושע אומר שירה זו אמרו (שמואל א ב, ו)

     This is as it is taught in a baraita, that Rabbi Eliezer says: T  he dead that Ezekiel revived stood on their feet and recited song [of praise] to God and died.

“And what song did they recite”? [Asks the Gemara’s narrator]

“The Lord kills with justice and gives life with mercy”.

Rabbi Yehoshua says that it was this song that they recited: “The Lord kills, and gives life; He lowers to the grave and elevates” (I Samuel 2:6).


     Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua speak to the power of God to restore life at will, but the idea of music and singing seems to strengthen the life force within these corpses that were revived. To be REALLY alive, one must sings!

     We are told that music is the universal language of humankind because the notes that we sing go beyond words. Singing is a powerful way in which to convey what is locked in our hearts and our souls as we give our emotions the freedom of expression.

     This Talmudic interpretation of Ezekiel’s dry bone revival made me also think- “What song did they sing? What song gave them the strength to face death a second time, and how might that song help me when it is time for me to face the inevitable when it is time for my soul to cross the threshold into a new dimension of living?”

     I would like to express my gratitude to the music therapists who work for Skilled Nursing Facilities and for Hospice, as well as the volunteer groups that provide music for those who are approaching the end of their lives. I have watched with awe and wonder how they provide residents with the courage and the consolation that they need to travel on into the next realm of living.

     For the caregivers who are affected by music and song and draw strength to care for their loves one and at times, letting go at end of life. It is truly a magical moment of sacredness, when songs carry the themes that relate to the messiness that sometimes accompany our relationships, such as “forgive me, I forgive you, I love you, thank you (gratitude), and good bye...”

     In the parlance of Talmud discussion, here is a suggestive list (not a comprehensive list) of meaningful songs for hope, for letting go and love.

Jim Croce, Time In a Bottle.
Terry Jacks, Seasons in the Sun
Frank Sinatra, I Did It My Way
Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli, [Celine Dion], My Heart Will Go On
Bette Midler, Time to Say Goodbye, Wind Beneath My Wings 

Josh Groban, You Raise Me, Up by

     I am particularly touched by Psalm 150 which includes an orchestra of God’s chorus. The voice of each us when we breathe stands above all. “Kol hanishama tehallel Yah! Every breath we take praises Yah, the God of Breath.” I use this phrase as part of the “vidui” with individuals who are at the end of life, to let them know that every breath is holy.

     Perhaps the one thing that I might have in common with the individuals that were given new life in the vision of Ezekiel, and then experienced a second end-of-life ~ with a song in their ears ~ is the desire to know that I travel this road, not alone but in the presence of angels, God messengers. So, it is not out of place to say that the final song to be heard would have these lyrics in mind, in sleep as well as in end-of life:

May the angel Michael be at my right,
and the angel Gabriel be at my left;
and in front of me the angel Uriel,
and behind me the angel Raphael...
and above my head the Sh'khinah (Divine Presence). 





Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Count your [morning] blessings; Sotah 60b

     Those of you who know me, know that I am not a morning person. But from what I see in our Jewish morning rituals it might be that there are many others out there that are not fond of a morning wake up process either. Behold, our sages, with their wisdom, installed special morning prayers, which should help us wake up, move gradually from the sleep state to the wake state, and slowly gain awareness of our bodies, mind and spirit. I specifically refer to Birkot HaShachar, the morning/dawn blessing.[1]

     The Gemarah in Sotah 60b lists blessings that invite the worshippers to focus on the daily gifts that God restored for them. They move us through the natural process of waking up, like opening the eyes, standing up, getting dressed, etc.

Here are the blessings. I left out a number of them from this ritual (I wonder if you, the reader, can guess why):

When one awakens, he recites: 
My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure. 
You formed it within me, You breathed it into me, 
and You guard it while it is within me. 
One day You will take it from me and restore it within me in the time to come. As long as the soul is within me, I thank You, 
O Lord my God and God of my ancestors, Master of all worlds, Lord of all souls. Blessed are You, O Lord, who restores souls to lifeless bodies.

Upon hearing the sound of the rooster, one should recite: Blessed…Who gave the [sekhvi], the rooster (or heart) understanding to distinguish between day and night.

Upon opening his eyes, one should recite: Blessed…Who gives sight to the blind.

Upon sitting up straight, one should recite: Blessed…Who sets captives free. Upon dressing, one should recite: Blessed…Who clothes the naked, as they would sleep unclothed.

Upon standing up straight, one should recite: Blessed…Who raises those bowed down.

Upon descending from one’s bed to the ground, one should recite: Blessed…Who spreads the earth above the waters, in thanksgiving for the creation of solid ground upon which to walk.

Upon walking, one should recite: Blessed…Who makes firm the steps of man.

Upon putting on his shoes, one should recite: Blessed…Who has provided me with all I need, as shoes are a basic necessity.

Upon putting on his belt, one should recite: Blessed…Who girds Israel with strength.

Upon spreading a shawl upon his head, one should recite: Blessed…Who crowns Israel with glory.

What is special about these blessings, which I call a ritual?

     There is a Jewish belief that our sleeping state, symbolically, is a mini-death, טעמא דמותא, a crisis, which we need to overcome on a daily basis. We are to make a smooth transition from the nocturnal state of sleep, to the diurnal state of awakening. From an anthropological perspective, it would be proper to apply Victor Turner’s assertion that rituals we perform help us make transitions in life. Thus, we have our morning blessings recitation, a ritual we perform daily to move on from this Mini-Death of being out of control during our sleep to the awakening and gaining back control. And with this I face few problems which I put forth with questions but no answers;

     1. If it is about waking up and prepare for the day, why don’t we do stretches and deep breathing while we recite these blessings? Some synagogues have the custom to stand [still] while reciting these blessing. Others have the custom to be seated. Either way, when standing or sitting, I think that it is taking away from the personal experiential meaning of these blessings. [I only experienced movement during these blessing at Jewish Renewal services].

     2. Do we actually take the proper time at the synagogue to gradually internalize the meaning of each step? Can we please slow down the pace with each blessing?

     3. Do these blessings set aside those individuals who are blind, deaf, or in a wheel chair? I ask myself over and over again how does it feel for those who cannot see, or hear, or are not able to walk? I wonder what subjective meaning they create for themselves. It is true that commentators did ask similar questions. For example, should one recite hearing the sound of the rooster even if one did not or could not hear the rooster crow, or should a blind person make the blessing of who gives sight to the blind? (The Rambam thinks one should only recite if the corresponding occurrence is relevant to him or her. The Ramban, on the other hand, argues that everyone should say all of the blessings).

     With these questions in mind, I want to stress that one should feel completely free to assign a non-literal meaning of the blessing. Perhaps, the rooster could be the human insight to discern between night and day, good and bad. Or blindness could be the moral or spiritual avoidance we show at times. Or, freedom will mean that we be free from all types of tempting restraints. And lastly, while we recite these Birkot Hashachar we may acknowledge our privilege to have all the things we need. Especially when we know that there are many families who cannot afford to buy appropriate clothing, and that it is our social duty to dress the naked.

     Let us make the mornings happy and productive. Let us count our blessings. Amen!

כי מתער אומר אלהי נשמה שנתת בי טהורה אתה יצרתה בי אתה נפחתה בי ואתה משמרה בקרבי ואתה עתיד ליטלה ממני ולהחזירה בי לעתיד לבא כל זמן שהנשמה בקרבי מודה אני לפניך ה' אלהי ואלהי אבותי רבון כל העולמים אדון כל הנשמות ברוך אתה ה' המחזיר נשמות לפגרים מתים
כי שמע קול תרנגולא לימא ברוך אשר נתן לשכוי בינה להבחין בין יום ובין לילה כי פתח עיניה לימא ברוך פוקח עורים כי תריץ ויתיב לימא ברוך מתיר אסורים כי לביש לימא ברוך מלביש ערומים כי זקיף לימא ברוך זוקף כפופים כי נחית לארעא לימא ברוך רוקע הארץ על המים כי מסגי לימא ברוך המכין מצעדי גבר כי סיים מסאניה לימא ברוך שעשה לי כל צרכי כי אסר המייניה לימא ברוך אוזר ישראל בגבורה כי פריס סודרא על רישיה לימא ברוך עוטר ישראל בתפארה




[1] These Blessing were once said at home immediately upon waking up (the Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer), but later were integrated into the regular morning prayer service out of concern that they were not being said at home.




Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The toxic impact of Anger – BT Pesachim 66b


BT Eruvin 65b attributes the teaching of Rabbi Ilai:

A person’s character can be discerned by three things: koso (“his cup”), kiso (“his purse”), and ka’a’so (“his anger”). This refers to our behavior with drinking alcohol, with money, and with anger.

One of the most persistent emotion that we all experience is the feeling of anger. Occasionally we express anger without being aware of it and it shows in the way we talk, the words we use and even with certain body language that is different from the regular state of being relaxed.

But there are also those who express anger in violence. Anger that is expressed with a temper tantrum (yes, I have seen adults), hitting others, or it could be as simple as punching the wall.

I often ask myself whether it would be better to internalize anger and not express it in any way. Would it be better to smile all the time and seem like a nice person and not rage at everyone? I think that this would be unhealthy. Living with a mask is difficult. It takes a lot of energy and builds pressure. On the other hand, if we externally express anger, we equally damage ourselves and others. Articles in the Journal of Medicine and Life and Psychology Today make it clear that the feeling of anger stimulates the stress hormones, specifically corticosteroids and catecholamine, which leads to body metabolic modifications, vascular problems, and heart problems. And that “A strong emotion that is accompanied by arousal of the nervous system, anger produces effects throughout the body. But if you express it, you’re not necessarily better off”.

So, the dilemma remains.

In BT Pesachim 66b we read how the sages viewed anger and its consequences. The following section that is taught by Reish Lakish is related to his personal tragic story. He died as a result of anger.

Reish Lakish was first a robber or gladiator. After meeting with Yochanan he married Yochanan’s sister, became a student of Torah and then his study partner. They both worked well together. One day, they had an halachic discussion about the purity of knives and weapons. Yochanan alluded to Reish Lakish’s life as a bandit, in which a knowledge of weapons was a matter of habit. Shocked and insulted, Reish Lakish responded in anger. They refused to speak to one another or forgive one another. Yochanan died of a broken heart, and Reish Lakish died shortly thereafter from the pain of it all.

Here is the text:

Resh Lakish said: As to every man who becomes angry: if he is a Sage [wise man], his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him”.

Following is the example of Moses, who lost his wisdom due to anger, and forgot the laws that the priest Eleazar taught him; “And Moses became angry at the commanders of the army…” (Numbers 31:14). [And, in this portion of the week, Moses loses it again in the case of the Golden calf].

The example for lost prophecy is Elisha, the disciple of Elijah. He loses his prophetic ability because the anger he had for King Yehoram of Israel. “And Elisha said to the king of Israel, “What have you to do with me?!” (2 Kings 3:13), and it is written: “And now get me a musician.” As the musician played, the hand of Adonai came upon him [the spirit of prophecy] (2 Kings 3:14).

The Gemara continues:

“R. Mani b. Pattish said: Whoever becomes angry, even if greatness has been decreed for him by Heaven, is cast down”.

The Gemara is stressing that anger is not beneficial. It seems to be a universal feeling. Like what the Buddha taught: “You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.” Or like what Mark Twain used to say: “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”

What are we to do with it? There is a lot to think about and there are many ways in which one can examine her/his feelings.

Next time we feel anger, ask - is there an appropriate / justifiable time to either expressing it or not?

Next time we feel anger, be mindful of the fact that what we might say we might regret forever.

Or, perhaps, discover the inner forces that trigger our anger. Would it not be wonderful if we could convert all these feeling to positive acceptance of life with lots of forgiving and strength? 


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Spiritual charity and the Tales of two Seas; Baba Batra 10a and Sukka 49b




     This post emerged during this summer’s stay in Israel. I heard the story from my friend Dalia, about her nephew, who got killed in a terrorist attack. In his death he donated his organs to save lives. And so he already enabled a man to regain his vision with the donated retina. I was thinking how amazing it is to be able to give to others. But in particular, I was thinking that there is no one way to give to others. People can choose to be givers in many shapes and forms.

     And here is another Israeli hint for the idea of giving;

     There are two lakes in Israel. One is the Dead Sea, the other is the Sea of Galilee. Both are not really seas, both receive their waters from the Jordan river. And yet, they are very, very different. The Dead Sea in the south is very high in salt. You can float and read a book at the same time! Thus, there is no life at all; no vegetation and no marine life. Hence the name: Dead Sea. The Sea of Galilee is north of the Dead Sea. It is surrounded by the rich and colorful vegetation. It is the home to over twenty different types of fishes.

Sea of Galilee
The Dead Sea
     Same source of the Jordan river’s water, and yet one sea is full of life, the other is dead. How come? The Jordan river flows into the Sea of Galilee and then flows out so it keeps the sea healthy and vibrant, allowing marine life to exist. But the Dead Sea is below the mean sea level, and has no outlet for its water. The water flows in from the Jordan river, but does not flow out. Thus, unfit for any marine life.

     There are the Givers and the Takers. And in Judaism, giving charity is an obligation. In the Bavli Talmud we fine dozens of texts about this obligation. They say that charity, or in Hebrew - Tzedakah, is the most important commandment to fulfill. For example, we read in Baba Batra 10a the following:

"R. Yehudah says: Ten strong things have been created in the world. The rock is hard, but the iron cleaves it. The iron is hard, but the fire softens it. The fire is hard, but the water quenches it. The water is strong, but the clouds bear it. The clouds are strong, but the wind scatters them. The wind is strong, but the body bears it. The body is strong, but fear crushes it. Fear is strong, but wine banishes it. Wine is strong, but sleep works it off. Death is stronger than all, but charity saves from death, as it is written, Righteousness [tzedakah] delivers from death (Proverbs 10:2; 11:4)." 
     If you are like me, who was taught that “Tzaddaka” is giving money to the poor or to other worthy causes, we are missing the point. Most often we think that giving relates to how much money one gives away. That if we donate to charity with a check, we are Givers. And if we do not have the means of money, we are out of the box of Giving. However, being generous is far more than a money issue. It is a code of behavior that requires generosity from the heart, the sharing of personal time, energy, talent, wisdom, love, compassion and many other resources. The act of charity also includes visiting the sick, burying the dead, and dealing justly with others.

     The classic ethical work of Orchot Tzadikim – [Ways of the Righteous], written in Germany in the 15th century, liberates us from this conditional relationship between charity and money. Three categories of giving with generosity are listed: giving of one's wealth, giving of oneself physically by being present to others in need, and giving of one's wisdom. The last two are types of giving that money cannot buy.

     The giving from our spirit of compassion and love, is the emotional quality of giving which is commonly referred to as Gemilut hasadim- deeds of loving-kindness. Investing from your own energy builds relationship, which does not depends on giving money to the poor. In Sukka 49b we read:

"R. Elazar further stated: Acts of loving-kindness (Gemilut hasadim) are greater than charity (Tzedakah), for it is said, “Sow to yourselves according to your charity (Tzedakah), but reap according to your hesed (kindness)” (Hosea 10:12); when one sows, it is doubtful whether he will eat [the harvest] or not, but when one reaps, he will certainly eat.

Our rabbis taught: In three respects Gemilut hasadim is superior to charity: charity can be done only with one’s money, but Gemilut hasadim can be done with one’s person and one’s money. Charity can be given only to the poor, but Gemilut hasadim both to the rich and the poor. Charity can be given to the living only, Gemilut hasadim can be done both to the living and to the dead."  


     Have you considered visiting the sick as giving? Or, supporting someone by just listening to them without trying to fix them? Could we imagine that a smile, a recognition of someone with words could also be acts of giving? Bava Batra 9b affirms that our presence could lift one’s spirits at times of despair and sustains the recipient at least as much as any donation;

"Someone who gives a coin to the poor will be blessed with six blessings, whereas the one who addresses him with words of comfort will be blessed with eleven blessings (even if he does not give him a donation)."

     Ketubos 111b also mentions that even a smile alone could be as important as a physical donation:

"The congregation of Israel says to the Almighty: 'Master of the Universe, wink to me with Your eyes for that exhilarates me more than wine and smile at me with Your teeth for that is sweeter to me than milk."
The Talmud continues and says this is proof to what Rabbi Yochanan said, "Better is the one who shows the white of his teeth (in a smile) to his friend, than the one who gives him milk to drink."

     I think that each one of us were, one time or another, the Giver of many versions, like the Sea of Galilee, where it enriched our lives with the sense of a moral fulfillment. And also being the Taker, where it left us spiritually empty. How do you see yourself today? Are you the Sea of Galilee or the Dead Sea?

     Let’s not be like the Dead Sea. May we recall the joy we get when giving and what healing it can provide because the act giving from the heart makes a difference in people’s life.