Earth Etude for Elul 17 – Spiritual Charity and the Tale of Two Seas
by Rabbi Ziona Zelazo~
This post emerged during a summer 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.
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 find 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 10b the following:
- 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 relationships, which does not depends on giving money to the poor. In Sukka 49b we read:
- 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)’ (Hosea10:12); 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.
Rabbi Ziona Zelazo was ordained at The Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR) in New York, a pluralistic seminary that trains rabbis and cantors. She is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and was born and raised in Haifa, Israel. She served in The Israeli Defense Force and studied Biblical archaeology and ancient languages in Tel Aviv University. Rabbi Ziona completed her academic education in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and taught as an adjunct professor at Montclair State University, New Jersey. Rabbi Ziona officiates in life cycle rituals, provids Jewish education to adults, ministers pastoral care and provides spiritual counseling to all age groups. Rabbi Ziona believes in developing positive relationships between people of all faiths and has served on the bio-ethic committees of Valley Hospital and St. Joseph’s-Wayne Hospital for the last 20 years. She is a strong advocate for the Women of the Wall in Israel. Rabbi Ziona is married to Ron Zelazo, and they are proud parents of 3 adult children.