Elul: Incredible investment

We have to open the door -Chesed and tzedakah are intimately related. When you interact with others this way, Hashem will view you as well with a generous eye. 

Rabbanit Shira Smiles, | updated: 20:15

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Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

In this season of awe, we often invoke the mantra, “Uteshuvah utefillah utzedaka ma’avirin et roa hagezaeirah/Repentance, prayer and charity can turn back a negative decree.” These three paths to a positive outcome are alluded to in three verses that each contain an acronym to this month of Elul preceding Rosh Hashanah, notes Rav Schlesinger.

The first of these verses, from Shir Hashirim, is the most well known: “Ani ledodi (u)vedodi li/I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” The first letter of each word spells out Elul. This verse implies a conversation, prayer, tefillah. The second verse, from Deuteronomy, implies return and atonement: “Umal elevovcha (u)vet levav zarecha/ And He will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring,” bringing your hearts closer, implies regret, atonement and return, teshuvah. Our final verse is from Megillat Esther: “Mishloach manot (e)ish lere’eyhu umatanot la’evyonim/Sending mishloach manot each to his friend and gifts to the poor,” an obvious allusion to tzedakah.

During the month of Elul and throughout the Yomim Noraim/Days of Awe we need to focus on all three of these. While there seems to be a clear connection between repentance and prayer, we can wonder why, of all the mitzvoth in the Torah, our Sages chose tzedakah as the third path to completing this trilogy. What is the special power in tzedakah that it can be instrumental in changing a decree against us?

One reason seems obvious. As Rabbi Mintzberg z”lnotes in Ben Melech, so many of the mitzvoth of the Torah are rooted in the concept of tzekadah, in the command to create a world that is fair and just, where all people have what they need while retaining their dignity. As Rabbi Scheinerman explains in Ohel Moshe, When you give a needy person money he needs, you are giving him a new lease on life. In reciprocation, Hashem will give you a new lease on life as well.

Rav Dovid Hofstadter discusses our question in great depth. First Rav Hofstadter notes that all three of these tools for averting the negative decree are alluded to in the verse from Shema we recite twice daily and at bedtime: “Ve’ahavta et Hashem Elokhecha bechol levavcha uvechol nafshecha uvechol me’odecha/And you shall love Hashem with all your hearts, and with all your soul and with all your resources.” “With all your heart,” refers to prayer; “With all your soul,” refers to teshuvah; “And with all your resources,” refers to tzedakah.

But giving charity (a default but very poor translation) can be accomplished on multiple levels, continues Rabbi Hofstadter. On the first level, when one sees poverty, one feels an uneasy compassion, and one desires to help the poor person. This charity is given more to alleviate the donor’s discomfort at the plight of the poor than as an altruistic act to help the poor. Perhaps the donor would wish he had not seen the needy person to begin with and therefore would not have felt the urge to help him. He is filling his own need rather than the need of the poor person. This giving, although still tzedakah, is selfish giving.

A higher level of tzedakah is seeking out people in need so that he can give to them. The donor’s only need is to give of his possessions to others. This was the character of Avraham Avinu who was so dejected when he had no visitors to feed that he sat at his open “doorway” and beseeched Hashem to send a wayfarer his way. His desire was strictly to benefit others. He seeks opportunities to help others. In this type of chesed, the giver is acknowledging that all he has comes from Hashem, and he is actually giving from the wealth that Hashem has merely entrusted to his care. This level of tzedakah has the ability to annul an evil decree, for by acknowledging that everything comes from Hashem, he proves himself worthy of continuing to receive Hashem’s blessings.

But the highest form of tzedakah is performed with the intention of imitating the characteristics and behavior of Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Here, the sole intention of giving is the desire to help and give to others. Hashem’s purpose in creating Man was so that He would have a recipient for all He had to give. When our sole purpose is to give to others, we are validating Hashem’s purpose in creating Man and are meriting further life and blessings.

We tend to think that tzedakah is limited to giving money to the needy. Rabbi Mintzberg z”l takes us in an additional direction. In our verse from Megillat Esther, only the second half of the verse refers to giving to the poor. The first half is about ish lere’eyhu/each to his friend. An integral part of tzedakah is building relationship, having a generous spirit and a “good eye” for your fellow. Tzedakah is not confined to money. It includes being happy at another’s good fortune, raising the spirits of someone who is depressed, responding to the emotional needs of another. Chesed and tzedakah are intimately related. When you interact with others this way, Hashem will view you as well with a generous eye. 

Rabbi Scheinerman reminds us that Hashem has instituted a system of measure for measure in the way He runs the world. Therefore, if someone shows mercy toward others, Hashem will likewise show mercy on him even if he is otherwise unworthy. This system also works in reverse, adds Rav Wolbe z”l. If you show no mercy to others, Hashem will withhold His mercy from you. If someone has other positive attributes but he is too demanding of or strict with others, why would Hashem nevertheless not be merciful with him in light of his other good attributes?

The answer, says Rav Wolbe z”l, is that the character of being charitable creates tools and vessels that can accept and fill up with blessings and plenty. If you don’t have these vessels, there is nothing that Hashem can fill. We determine how Hashem will interact with us by how we interact with others. If we are angry, miserly, or demeaning with others, that is how Hashem will interact with us. If, on the other hand, we are compassionate, uplifting and generous with others, we will have created huge vessels that Hashem can fill to the top.

From Rosh Chodesh Elul we start reciting the Psalm LeDovid Hashem ori twice daily. Rabbi Shapiro in Keter Meluchah offers a beautiful, Kabbalistic reason for this custom. Basing his explanation on the Arizal, Rabbi Shapiro notes that Hashem’s name appears thirteen times in this Psalm, paralleling the thirteen names and attributes of Hakodosh Boruch Hu. By reciting this twice daily, we are calling Hashem’s name a total of twenty-six times, the numerical equivalent of His four lettered name symbolizing mercy. We are thus bearing witness that there is none other but Hashem, and we thereby expel the angelic court of justice and asking Hashem Himself to be our judge.  But we must understand that merely reciting this Psalm and reciting the thirteen attributes of Hashem will be ineffective unless we emulate Hashem by acting according to these attributes. We will have opened the door, and then He will interact with us in a close, loving relationship that the angels are incapable of having.                          

The Sifsei Chaim brings yet another facet to our discussion. He cites the verse from Psalms 85, “Kindness and truth have met, righteousness and peace have kissed.” If you relate to the world only through truth, judgment, the strict interpretation of Torah without having it meet kindness, you cannot make peace and wholeness even in your own actions. Even when we do mitzvoth, there is usually a tinge of impurity, a lack of proper thought in its performance. If we want Hashem to view our mitzvah performance as complete and perfect, we have to give the benefit of the doubt to others as well. We must look for ways to do kindness, in deed and in judgment, to others.

Just as tzedakah has gradations, so too does chesed, continues the Sifsei Chaim. Sometimes we may do a chesed by rote, or we may feel obligated to do so. For example, we may feel obligated to invite a neighbor for a Shabbat meal even if we are not happy to do so because we see no way out of extending the invitation. This is not true chesed. True chesed is ahavat chesed, love of chesed that prompts us to look for chesed opportunities. It requires us to step outside oneself and see the need of the other. This chesed should be part of our daily routines, of considering how to make life just a little easier for the other. Are you taking up two parking spaces and too tired to straighten out your car? Are you making room on the supermarket’s conveyor belt so the person behind you, juggling her groceries without a shopping cart, can put them down? Even holding the door an extra minute for someone who walks slowly is an act of chesed. These acts (and hundreds of others) require that we be attuned to the people around us. Even a smile can raise someone’s spirit and gives them dignity. When you go beyond the “I”, there is less “I” even in a sin committed for Hashem to condemn.

Chesed is about changing yourself from being a taker to being a giver, of taking one’s personal physicality and transforming it to spirituality, writes Rabbi Moshe Schwab z”l.

Tomer Devorah tells us that there are angels tasked with collecting acts of chesed Bnei Yisroel perform. When Hashem is contemplating judgment against Bnei Yisroel, these angels display the acts of kindness before Hakodosh Boruch Hu, and Hashem displays compassion.

The medrash of Hashem’s discussion with the angels concerning whether to create the world or not is very relevant to us today. Emes and chesed were in disagreement. Emes/truth/strict judgment was against the creation of the world while chesed/kindness/compassion advocated for the creation. Ultimately, chesed succeeded, and Hashem created the world on the promise of continuing chesed among humankind. This chesed is necessary constantly, as Hashem recreates the world each day, writes the Tolner Rebbe. If we want our world and our lives to continue, we must work on the mitzvoth of chesed constantly. Even if we do not see a specific need at a specific time, one can always pray for others, for their health, finances, children, finding a shidduch… Be generous with your prayers. It doesn’t even cost you anything.

Rabbi Gedaliah Eisenman z”l  gives us one more thought about the power of chesed. Since proper chesed is about connecting to others, when we perform act of chesed, we become part of the collective of Am Yisroel. Together as a community we will always continue. The judgment of an individual within that community will therefore not be as harsh as the judgment would be for him as an individual outside of the klal.

Let us all be part of the collective of Klal Yisroel. Let us be aware of and sensitive to the needs of others around us. Whether through tzedakah or acts of chesed, may we merit a year full of goodness.

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