Category Archives: Thoughts

Sympathy or Empathy? When we have to face Tzedakah

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During the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, between Rosh Hashanah and the end of Yom Kippur, God examines His Creation and, in particular, the Human Being. He inspects our actions, our intentions and above all what we have done of His Creation. There are two sides to God’s examination: His side and ours. Each and every one of us needs to engage in profound soul searching. These are well known principles of Jewish tradition. We also believe that God is ready to change His severe decree on us if we engage in three actions: Tefilah [prayer], Tzedakah [social justice] and Teshuvah [rectifying repentance].

It is Rabbi Elazar who teaches us that “three things cancel the severe decree: Tefilah, Tzedakah, and Teshuvah” (Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit 65b / Halakhah 1). He learned this from what God said to King Solomon after finishing the building of the Temple: “if My people, upon whom My name is called, shall humble themselves and pray [this refers to prayer, “tefilah”], shall seek My presence [this refers to social justice, “tzedakah”] and shall return from their evil ways [this refers to rectifying repentance, “teshuvah”], I will then hear from Heaven, forgiving their transgressions and healing their land [this refers to canceling the severe decree]” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

Prayer, tzedakah, and repentance – three acts that profoundly affect our soul if we carry them out truly and sincerely. Sincere prayer implies an intense self-examination, it is a kind of trial of ourselves. We ask God, we acknowledge His power, we confess in front of Him. In this way we become aware of what we have, the good and the evil, and of what we lack. The introspection enclosed in prayer returns unto us and influences our soul. This return unto oneself is implied in the Hebrew verb for praying, which grammatical form is in the reflexive: “l’hitpalel”.

The teshuvah, the rectifying repentance, implies examining of our acts, mending any harm we could have induced to our fellow person, asking forgiveness from the one we’ve harmed and committing not to repeat the transgressions or the negative acts we have done. This is a very tough process for the soul to take. It demands taking full responsibility on our negative acts, as well as the explicit acknowledgement of having done them. This is, perhaps, the most difficult part of the teshuvah, since it requires a complete acknowledgment of our acts without justifying them, totally humbling our souls. If we present justifications to what we’ve done we are actually saying that it was not that negative, since there’s a reason for our deeds. In there is a reason, if there are constraints the responsibility falls, even partly, on someone or something else. The teshuvah demands assuming responsibility without reserves. The profound self examination should lead us to grasp when there actually were reasons or constraints and when there weren’t such.

Of those three acts Rabbi Elazar enumerates, I have found that tzedakah, social justice, is the most difficult for the soul to accomplish. It demands an essential change in human spirit. Why is it so? Because it requires from us to stop considering ourselves as the center and to try and understand reality from the other person’s perspective and experience. It demands we declare “it is not me who understands other’s affliction, but it is rather the sufferer who makes me understand his or her grief”.

You might say: “But tzedakah means giving money to the needy. Nothing could be easier!”

Just giving money is not tzedakah – it is charity. I’m giving someone else something that I think he lacks and that I can spare. Yes, it is a great act to do – but this is not tzedakah, social justice. It doesn’t cause me to change; it doesn’t cause me neither to really understand the other person, nor to access his distress, to experience reality through his soul. Charity briefly mitigates the tribulation of the feeling; the needy’s feeling, perhaps, but mainly that of the giver. Charity is the consequence of the giver’s woe regarding the indigent person. It is a positive consequence since we help, albeit shortly, somebody in need of money, clothing, or a meal. Charity is undoubtedly a great act – but it is not tzedakah.

Our Sages taught us that real tzedakah means to give needy people what they lack: “If he has no clothes, clothe him; if he lacks housewares, buy them for him; if he or she haven’t got married, help them to do so; even if he used to ride a horse with a servant running in front of him and then he became poor, buy him a horse to ride on and have a servant to run in front of him.” (Maimonides, Hilkhot Matnon Aniim 7:3).

Tzedakah means to restore dignity to those who have lost it; to restore trust to those who have lost their trust in others, as well as to restore to others the trust in that person; to help those with no jobs find their livelihood; to restore self-confidence to the weakened; to restore the smile to the sad; to help those who hold back their tears weep; to restore our capacity to compliment others.

We have to withdraw from ourselves, from considering ourselves as the center, so as to understand what comes from the other’s place and affliction. Because tzedakah means helping the other one to attain what HE or SHE lacks and not what WE think they need. The difference is huge, because needy is not only one who looks like indigent. A needy person may be wealthy or poor, happy, or sad, someone who looks like needy, as well as someone who seems to be doing fine… doing fine until we truly understand his and her soul.

I am not embarrassed

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Last week two crimes, product of hatred and fanaticism, were perpetrated in Israel: the arson of a house in Kafr Duma, a village of Palestinians, where a baby was burnt to death, and the stabbing attack during the “Gay Parade” in Jerusalem, which resulted in the death of a 16-year-old girl.

The perpetrator of the crime in the Gay Parade is an ultra-Orthodox fanatic Jew, who had already been sentenced to 10 years in prison for a similar offense.

Those who set fire to that family house in Duma are apparently Jewish religious extremists identified with “tag mehir” (“price tag”, in reference to the price to be charged after Palestinian terrorist activities), a terrorist ideology policy responsible for several attacks since 2008. This last one is the first to claim a life, pointing to an exacerbation of violence in this group.

The motives were different, the murderers are not related to each other, but both crimes are connected by an ideology of extremism that advocates violence justified on Jewish religious principles.

There are those who might argue (in fact, they already do) that this is what Jewish religious sources lead to: narrow-mindedness, exclusion of those who are different, fanaticism, violence.

There are those who might argue (in fact, they already do) that all this makes them embarrassed about Jewish religion and about being Jews.

Now, let’s take a look at the other side: the response of the people.

After having witnessed the unrestrained violence of these individuals, blinded by their religious fury, there are millions (literally millions!) of Jews who condemn the attacks, who are outraged at the violation of the sacredness of life, who actively denounce and teach, so that these phenomena will never happen again. These are millions who write, demonstrate, preach, moved and alarmed by deeds they clearly define as “not Jewish”.

This response appeared all over the world – Jews of all the religious and secular trends, most of the Israeli society and the Israeli political leadership, together with the majority of committed Jews all over the world. There was almost no synagogue in the world where this had not been the topic of discussion and outrage, be it by the rabbi’s address, be it by the attitude and talks of the congregants.

But these are not more than two murders! It sounds no good, I know. But from an objective point of view, these are only two murders motivated by extremism and fanaticism, like hundreds or thousands of the same kind perpetrated every week all over the world!

But for us, Jews, there is not such a thing like “it is only two”. The violation of a single human life, be it a friend’s or an enemy’s, either we agree or we disagree with the victim’s way or view, the violation of a single human life is experienced by the Jew as a deep human failure.

This is what we have learnt from our own Jewish sources: the Torah, the Prophets, the Talmud, the medieval exegetes, the rabbis (philosophers and legislators) of all generations. This is what we have learnt from all that is Jewish religion and tradition. Yes, the very same Torah that establishes death penalty has made us understand that we mustn’t use it. The very same Talmud that specifies the types of executions, calls “killer” a tribunal that condemns to death. The sanctity of life – that is the Jewish religious principle.

The Jewish religious sources lead to: broad-mindedness, the acceptance of those who are different, respect, the perpetual quest for peace.

There is a minority of Jewish extremists who does not understand this and does not understand the Jewish sources. They diminish the glory of God in the Universe.

There is a constant Jewish majority, in all the centuries, in every place, who understands it and puts it into practice. We are those who augment the glory of God in the Universe.

I am never embarrassed about being Jewish. In situations like this one, may God help us not letting them recur, in situations like this one my People reacts sanctifying life and I am not embarrassed at all. Moreover, I thank God for He made me being born into this People.

“The highest form of wisdom is kindness”… or isn’t?

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Many times we receive through the Internet (in Facebook, or even in e-mail messages) nice sentences attributed to certain people or writing works. We generally don’t bother looking for the source. It is a lot of work. And, besides, who cares?

We should care, indeed. Not only because of the possibility of plagiarism, but mainly because a misattribution leads us to misunderstand ideas, theories, writers, thinkers, religions, etc.

Some time ago I came across with an interesting case such that. A person received the popular quote “The highest form of wisdom is kindness”, attributed to the Talmud. She sought for the original source and quote, but nothing. She couldn’t find anything of the like in the Rabbinical Literature.

Well, the reason is simply because this is not a classical Jewish thought. It is neither in the Talmud, nor in later Jewish thinkers.

The Jewish conception of kindness does not make of it a kind of wisdom; neither the highest, nor the lowest. Kindness is a great gift, but it is never related to wisdom. Wisdom is intellect; kindness is feeling. Both are important, but one is not the consequence of the other.

Feelings may alter knowledge in a negative way. To know, you must stay affectively neutral.

Intellect may alter feelings in a negative way. To feel, you must experience by the means of your non intellectual faculties.

Jewish teachings speak of the value of wisdom together with or without something: silence, kindness, humbleness, piety and the like.

Jewish teachings speak of the need of being wise and kind at the same time, because both characteristics are the sparks of the Divine image in our souls.

Here there are some nice Jewish quotes, from the Bible and Rabbinical literature, about wisdom and kindness and their relationship:

The fear of the Lord is the instruction of wisdom; and before honour goes humility”. (Proverbs 15:33)

She opens her mouth with wisdom; and the law of kindness is on her tongue” (Proverbs 31:26)

Seven qualities serve the Divine Throne: wisdom, justice, right, kindness, mercy, truth and peace” (Avot d’Rabbi Nathan, ch. 37)

Rava said: Just like this threshold helps aiming the door to close or to open, humbleness is a protection of wisdom” (Tractate Kallah Rabbati 3:3)

The ornament for the Torah is wisdom; the ornament for the wisdom is humbleness; the ornament for the humbleness is fear of God; the ornament of the fear of God is fulfillment of commandments; the ornament for the fulfillment of commandments is modesty” (Tractate Derekh Eretz 4:4)

Rav Zutra bar Tuvia said in the name of Rav: “The Universe was created with ten elements: wisdom, understanding, knowledge, strength, admonition, mightiness, justice, right, kindness and mercy” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Haggigah 12a)

Rava used to say: the goal of wisdom is repentance and good deeds” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakhot 17a)

A person must do good deeds and only then ask God for knowledge of Torah; a person must do right and just deeds and only then ask God for wisdom; a person must act with modesty and only then ask God for the ability of understanding” (Eliahu Rabbah 6, loc. “Ma zakha”).

So, “The highest form of wisdom is kindness” is not from the Talmud, is not Jewish. What is the source?

It is of Spanish Christian origin. It is found in “Excelencias de San Pedro, príncipe de los apóstoles” [“Excellences of Saint Peter, the apostles’ prince”], book III, ch. 6 (page 287), written by Don Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, Spanish bishop and viceroy of New Spain in the 17th century.

It comes as part of his exegesis to Mark 10:17: “there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”.

Don Juan asks why the man called Jesus Master and not Lord? He says that this is to advice the princes to choose ministers fit for the tasks: “if masters, then wise and kind. If they are not masters, then kindness is a very high wisdom” (“Si ha de ser maestro, sabiduría, y con ella la bondad; si no es maestro, la bondad es muy alta sabiduría”).

In the index of the book (page 578), under the word “Sabiduría“, comes the quote in the form that was later translated into English: “La bondad es la más alta sabiduría” [kindness is the highest form of wisdom].

So the next time you receive a nice quote, a charming sentence, attributed to someone (Jesus, Gandhi, Marx, Kant, the Talmud, Confucius, etc.), don’t just say: “Nice! Who cares who really wrote it!” Look for the author. He and she deserve it. The misattributed source deserves it, too!

The Sanctuary, God and us

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When Moses tells the people of Israel the commandments of God regarding the building of the Tabernacle, what to do and how to do it, the Torah repeats the same data already detailed ten chapters earlier. The parasha Vayaqhel seems to copy in a kind of routine the contents of the parasha Terumah.

There is a little omission, though; there is a short sentence that Moses did not tell:

V’asu li mikdash v’shakhanti b’tokham”, “They will build Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them” (Exo. 25:8).

How is it possible that Moses failed to remember such an important thing, the reason and the goal of the whole act of building?

Maybe he did not forget.

Maybe Moses gave us the interpretation of what this building had to be.

Let’s see – God said to Moses, even before telling him the list of tasks for the construction, “they will build Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them”. Moses told the people, even before transmitting God’s orders regarding this building, “work shall be done for six days, but on the seventh day there shall be something sacred for you [yihyie lakhem kodesh]” (Exo. 35:2)

Moses did not say that the seventh day shall be holy, but rather that ON the seventh day (“UVAyom hash’vyi’yi”) there shall be something holy, something sacred for you (“yihyie lakhem kodesh”)

This is the sanctuary, the Mikdash (Kodesh and Mikdash come from the very same Hebrew root) that is to be built, for God to dwell among us. This is the true mobile Temple, the true holy place. It is not a physical place, but a kind of island into the time: it is the Shabbat. It is an island into the time that we have to build with our soul, putting the week between brackets; this week full of rush, troubles and desires. In doing so we give birth to a new dimension that reveals its sacred nature.

Moses teaches us that God’s commandment “they will build Me a sanctuary” really means “on the seventh day there shall be something sacred for you”, something sacred that we have to create, to build, so as to let God dwell among us: “and I will dwell among them”.

Let’s be good builders of the sacred.