Rabbi Michael Friedland, Sinai Synagogue
In numerous rabbinic midrashim we are told that the Messiah dwells among the beggars. This image is used as a literary device by the great Hebrew writer Shai Agnon in his short story ‘The Kerchief’. Agnon opens by mentioning the rabbinic tales of the Messiah as a leprous beggar sitting outside Jerusalem and how he wished to be the one who could save the Messiah by bandaging his sores. His father, an itinerant peddlar, returned from one trip with a beautiful kerchief for his mother. His mother wore it every Shabbat and festivals to cover her hair. On his bar mitzvah she gave it to him to keep his neck warm. On his way home from the synagogue, filled with joy at having become obligated to observe the mitzvot he runs into a beggar who is despised by the townspeople because of his filthy and sickly look. But the beggar is sitting on a heap of stones, changing the bandages of his sores.
Agnon gives the scarf to the beggar who uses it to bind his wounds. Immediately Agnon feels guilt at having given away this valuable kerchief. On returning home without it, his all-knowing mother embraces him, so joyful at the kindness and compassion expressed towards the beggar.
The story symbolically tells the mystical notion that the Divine Presence, often described as female, needs humanity to redeem the Messiah and bring about the final redemption. The story also expresses a core Jewish value – parents appreciate kindness and generosity in their children rather than knowing the value of a precious thing; more than material success we want moral success.
This goal is established in the earliest tales of our ancestors. In this morning’s Torah portion we are privy to an internal monologue within God: God is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah due to their wickedness. Should God inform Abraham about what God intends to do? “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him?” God concludes: For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do tzedakah and justice. The point God understands for God’s self is that Abraham has promised himself to living a life filled with tzedakah and even more imperative to God is his commitment to educate his children in the ways of tzedakah.
Earlier in our parasha we saw Abraham act on this: Three wayfarers come his way and despite the understanding that this occurs just after his brit milah, Abraham rushes out to greet and serve them. In this way Abraham established the highest ideal in tzedakah work – that our thoughts should be to do for others according to their individual need not at the comfort level of the giver.
In the Mishnah section known as Peah which describes the mitzvah of leaving the corners of a field for the poor, we are taught that there is no limit to this mitzvah. But the farmer must factor in his decision about how much to leave three aspects - the size of the field: a large field may allow him to leave a larger swath for the poor than a smaller field; the number of poor – the more poor in a given year, the more should be given; and the amount of the ‘anavah’. Commentators to the mishnah were not sure how to translate this term. Rabbi Shlomo Sirileo explains anavah in its typical sense of Rabbi’s Message: by Rabbi Michael Friedland humility meaning, the amount that will be given depends on how pious the farmer is. Rabbi Israel Lipshitz, Tiferet Yisrael, says anavah means the quality of the poverty. If it is severe, one must give more. That is, for Rabbi Lipshitz, it is not the qualities of the person giving, but rather the amount of the field offered to the poor depends on the needs of the impoverished.
This empathic and unselfish quality of Avraham’s tzedakah and hesed encourages God to take counsel with him regarding the situation in Sodom and Gomorrah.
What was it about Sodom and Gomorrah that lead to their destruction? According to Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, the Ramban, it was because they did not want newcomers in their community because they did not want to share. A Mishnah in Pirkei Avot states: [there are] four types of character in people: [one that says:] ‘mine is yours and yours is mine’ is a fool; [one that says:] mine is yours and yours is yours,’ is a pious person; [one who says:] ‘mine is mine, and yours is mine,’ is a wicked person; and one that says: ‘mine is mine, and yours is yours’: this is an average person BUT some say this is a Sodom-type of character. Why is this last quality Sodom like? Because one who says what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours indicates he has no interest in sharing, in being part of community and this leads to isolation then hatred and finally destruction.
Our congregation has benefitted greatly from the generosity of its members. Our small congregation with no Kurt Simon type of angels, makes it possible to function as a full service congregation. We have achieved a decent endowment, through 3 major fundraising campaigns in just the last 20 years that keeps our congregation afloat. Our synagogue is now engaged in a different type of fundraising effort. It is the Life and Legacy campaign that our Federation was able to apply for through the Greenspoon Foundation. In this campaign, the Greenspoon Foundation wants Jewish communities to get in the habit of estate planning. Through this campaign we ask that our members think not only of today but consider how Sinai Synagogue can impact on Jewish lives in the future as well. We are asking our members to consider Sinai in your estate planning so that even when we are no longer able to benefit from our community in this world, future generations of Jews who belong to Sinai will and in this way we will continue to be remembered and our names established as living memorials.
The Greenspoon Foundation has offered communities and synagogues that successfully participate in this venture, by signing up at least 18 legacies in each of the two years of the starter campaign, to gift those congregations $5000. We achieved that goal last year but we are 11 short for this year. If you are willing to put Sinai in your estate plans, you need not give anything now, just express a willingness to include Sinai in your plans, that is enough and we can discuss the many ways that is possible. I have no doubt that we will be able to achieve our goal for this year.
God trusted Abraham because “I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, to keep the way of the Lord, to do tzedakah and justice.” May we share in the sweetness of giving of ourselves as Avraham did, whom God recognized for his significant and generous estate planning.