Parsha Re’eh: Emotional Charity

In this week’s Parsha, Re’eh, we read about the mitzvah of tzedekah- charity- and the obligation to help one who is needy. We are told to loan or give money to those who need it, and to forgive all loans every Sabbatical year. To Jews living around the world today, tzedekah is still very important, and it is the norm for observant families to donate money to a number of charitable organisations.

But if we are to live by the words of the Torah and the Chassidus, we find that ahavos Yisroel- love for our fellow Jew- is more important than anything else. And although giving him money may very well be a big part of that, there is another kind of underprivileged person among us who we must remember to help: someone who is in distress.

We don’t give money to literally every person we see, and similarly, we don’t need to singlehandedly support people who drain us. But we do have an obligation to give “emotional” charity; to have compassion on those worse off than us, to support them during a hard time, and, if nothing else, to not add to their sorrow.

Part of being a Jew is being part of a community. And being part of a community means supporting one another. This comes in the form of gemachs; of hosting others for free Shabbes meals; of paying for orphans’ weddings; or donating money to help those who cannot afford the necessities. But it also means emotionally supporting each other: visiting the sick, comforting the widow, being there for people who have no one else.

In the past few weeks- and perhaps even the past few years- there has been plenty of hatred and darkness in the world. Political turmoil, discrimination and bigotry, and attacks from all sides of the political spectrum. And it’s in times like these that we are especially obligated to dispel the darkness with an extra measure of light, as the Alter Rebbe taught us. Supporting and giving back to others is a huge part of spreading light, and as we read about the mitzvah of charity this week, we should remember the “other” kind of giving which makes life so purposeful.

Where Will This Conflict End?

Recently, I haven’t been able to write much for this blog. I have been pressed for time, and for energy, and unusually for summer, I am busier than ever. Bezras Hashem, I have been lucky enough to try new things and spend time with great people- but unfortunately, my blog has suffered. I am still always thinking about what to write next- still saving articles, still keeping an eye out for publishers, still writing poems. But today, at the end of another long and wonderful day, I want to instead share with you the thoughts of another blogger. An inspiring, fascinating writer and a dedicated ger tzadekes- Safek:

“The Sabbath still ends pretty late up here. Havdalah was at 11:35 last night and we weren’t done until later. There were a lot of visitors this weekend and things ran a little late. By chance, we opted to drive home after havdalah, to sleep in our own beds instead of the RV. I came home, bleary-eyed and tired and I logged on to my computer to stay awake until Mr. Safek arrived with the RV, to help him unload it.

I blinked, not quite believing what I was seeing, reports of Nazis marching, with lit torches on a college campus in Virginia. Reports of clashes with counter-protestors that turned bloody, and reports of death at the hands of a terrorist who drove through a crowd of people.

It’s important to note the context in which this news came to me.

Our Chabad House hosts many visitors in summer and this weekend we had not only several families from NY and New Jersey, but also a large, rambunctious camp group of college boys. This group spent more time at the Synagogue than most camp groups that come through, so we spent more time with these boys than many of the other groups. For many of them, this trip was their first deep interaction with Judaism, particularly Orthodox Judaism. Many were wearing kippahs and tzitzits for the first time, proud to show them. They sang and danced and were loud and lively, with a youthful enthusiasm and idealism. They had been camping all over Alaska and told us stories of using an icy cold glacial river as a mikvah, of climbing mountains while singing Jewish songs. They stayed clear across town in a hostel in a kind of run down part of town, walking the whole way for services, tzitzits out and kippahs showing the whole way, unafraid.

Their unofficial theme was, “Jews Take Alaska!”

We laughed and explained that they were a little late. Our Mayor is Jewish and Jews have been a part of Alaskan history since it was recorded, coming here first with the fur trade before gold or oil was ever discovered. These boys, rough around the edges as they might be, represented hope, idealism, and pride and their presence challenged us to keep up. They came from college campuses not unlike the one in Virginia. As we waited for Havdalah, I sat and listened to them talk with our Rabbi about the possibility of starting Jewish clubs at their campuses or what the clubs were already doing, their fears about being “too pushy” or “too religious,” but also their obvious desire to bring back a little of what they’d experienced here in the mountains with all this inspiration.

As I drove back home last night on the highway, in the opposite lanes, I saw a police car stopped with flashing lights, I looked over and saw a moose that had been killed on the road, fresh blood spread across the roadway, it’s body torn as I looked away I felt a growing unease after the easy lightheartedness of the weekend, but I tried to brush it away. Moose are killed on the roads up here, but something about this moose and the timing had me feeling on edge.

It wasn’t long after that I opened up my computer and read about the protests in Charlottesville.

I saw pictures of men who looked like me or my family and who were younger than I am, carrying torches and yelling hatred about my family. I saw pictures of violent conflict on our own soil and even pictures of the car plowing through a crowd of people as if they were moose, bodies flying. It was surreal. I saw the columned buildings of the college campus in the torchlight and I immediately thought of those boys I’d spent the weekend with, headed back to college campuses this fall. My mind reeled and I began to think about how I would explain this to my own children.

We are often sheltered from events in the lower 48 here in Alaska, separated by timezones and distance. I am not naive enough, though, to think that the same hate does not also exist here, in the small communities in the same woods those boys were singing through. I remembered feeling nervous when I saw that they were walking through the less desirable parts of town visibly Jewish and some unease when I realized they would have also been doing this in some of the more remote areas, places where people who seek to avoid the mainstream go and where the beliefs and ideas that made them feel the need to separate from the rest of the world are allowed to fester. There are compounds built in the woods up here where all different kinds of armed people who believe this world is headed in the wrong direction wait.

This is all just 2 weeks or so after our own Rabbi counseled us to have our son wear a baseball cap when he can, to cover his kippah, and for him to tuck in his tzitzits, telling us that another boy in the Synagogue had been the target of racist graffiti on his school notebooks, swastikas scrawled across his notebooks as a threat…in elementary school.

Most converts are asked by the Beit Din (Rabbinical Court) that converts them why they would want to join the Jewish people and subject themselves to anti-semitism. My answer will be an easy one. We already are effected by it. Already, those who would hate Jews hate us. They make no distinctions for my husband’s murky halakhic status or my own lack of any Jewish status. To them, we are Jews and to them, I am even worse than a born Jew because I once was like them, fully white, and chose to cleave to a people I was not born to. If we chose not to convert, it wouldn’t stop people from hating us, but it would cut us off from support and inclusion in a community that understands what it is to be the target of such malice.

The contrast between the day of Shabbos and the night after was a stark reminder of the world we live in now, where hate has become more openly expressed again. I don’t doubt that it’s always been there, but now we see them march with no masks over their faces. However, we also see hope in young men who also no longer want to hide their Jewishness.

I can’t help but wonder where this conflict will all end and worry over my children. There is no mountain far enough to shelter us from such a storm.”

Doing the Right Thing

I read the following Daily Thought, courtesy of Chabad.org, and it spoke to me in an indescribable way;

“No person can know his own inner motives.
He may be kind because kindness brings him pleasure.
He may be wise because wisdom is music to his soul.
He may become a martyr burned in fire because his heart burns with defiance.
How can you know that your motives are sincere? What is the test?
The test will be when doing the right thing cuts against the grain.
Torah Ohr 19b; Likkutei Sichot, vol. 20, pp. 76, 306–307.”

Thank you to Chabad.org for providing not only this, but millions of other sources of inspiration, to me and others across the world.

My G-d, My G-d

I found this prayer in an old Siddur. Perhaps few of my readers would have read from such a siddur; perhaps it is too modern, too cutting-edge, too controversial even (and prayer is no place for controversy). And yet, as I read the words on Shabbes afternoon, my neshomo was touched. Prayer bridges all denominations, and when we utter these words together, we are connected as one big family…

Eli, Eli

My God, My God,
I pray that these things never end,
The sand and the sea,
The crash of the waters,
Lightning of the Heavens,
Each human prayer.

אלי, אלי, שלא יגמר לעולם החול והים רשרוש של המים ברק השמים תפילת האדם

Tu B’Av

Another Tu B’Av has passed, only this year, it wasn’t the happiest day on the calendar. Perhaps it’s not permitted to be sad on such a joyous day, but amidst all the flowers and greetings and statements I’ve heard- some despairing, most smug, all disheartening- I’ve found it hard to smile and rejoice. I’ve dwelt upon the past, and I’ve prayed G-d to help me, but sadness remains.

I know that words hold an immense power, but I’m not sure if it’s superstitious for me to wonder if all those times I swore I’d never want to marry left me in this state. Perhaps my vow not to marry was heard by G-d, and perhaps He has decided to teach me a lesson about my words. Perhaps that’s why I sit here, now, reflecting on 15th Av, and wishing it were my turn to say “Soon by you”.

They say man isn’t supposed to be alone, but I’m going to hazard a guess and say that women aren’t supposed to be, either. One thing I know for sure, is that it hurts to be alone when you were happy just a short while ago.

Transforming Learning

In today’s Hayom Yom we read about the importance of truly connecting to Hashem when we study Torah; “Uknei l’cha chaver (lit. “acquire a friend for yourself”) was changed to read v’kaneh l’cha chaver- “the quill shall be your friend”. This was, in turn, interpreted to refer to the “quill of the heart”, meaning that “whatever one learns one must experience emotionally”.

When I read about this today, I began to think about my own relationship with learning. When I read Sefer HaMitzvos, for example, I sometimes feel disconnected. Reading about the laws of keeping slaves and returning property is all well and good in the context of Biblical times, but the promise of “When Moshiach comes these laws will be relevant again” isn’t always enough to make me really connect with my learning.

B’ezras Hashem, in this day and age, there are a number of resources available to make learning accessible and relevant. There are videos and websites, shiurim and Q&As. There is no shortage of material, but unfortunately, I rarely find myself using it. Reading the Hayom Yom this morning strengthened my resolve to do so, and made me want to suggest that we all have an obligation to enhance our learning until we truly feel our souls connecting to Hashem every time we read words of the Chumash, Tanya, or any other text.

Torah study links the Earth and the Heavens, and we have a duty to do everything in our power to strengthen that bond.

Gut Shabbes! (Va’eschanan)

Sometimes, my views and actions attract a lot of attention from both my non observant and Chareidi friends. People seem shocked by my “values” and in many cases, they are shocked that a frum woman could believe certain things. “Why do you want to invite such people for Shabbes dinner? I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that,” or “How can you put up with such a person? I couldn’t, and I’m not even frum”. They feel that because I’m Chassidic, I should stick to mixing with other Chassidim, and that I am free to exclude people based on their religion, denomination or orientation.

I’m not your average Chossid. As someone coming from a non observant background, certain parts of my old lifestyle have stayed with me. I might have abandoned secular newspapers, music and films, but my views sometimes differ from those of major Chareidi rabbonim. I come under fire for this a lot, and sometimes, I begin to wonder if what I’m doing is necessary or even right.

Then I read the Hayom Yom today.

“The Alter Rebbe repeated what the Mezritcher Maggid said quoting the Baal Shem Tov: “Love your fellow like yourself” is an interpretation of and commentary on “Love Hashem your G‑d.” He who loves his fellow-Jew loves G‑d, because the Jew has with in himself a “part of G‑d Above.” Therefore, when one loves the Jew – i.e. his inner essence – one loves G‑d.”

What I do is second nature to me. Supporting someone- anyone- who is having a hard time, inviting people for a meal, or just giving them a chance to vent their frustrations- I don’t do it because it’s a mitzvah. I do it because I love every Jew- and, yes, every Noahide- who I encounter. We may be Chassidim, but that doesn’t mean we should shut ourselves off from those around us. Because when we fail to love each other, we fail to love G-d.

G-d gave us the precious gift of Shabbes in love. This Shabbes, let’s embody G-dliness. Let’s bring Holiness down to earth. Let’s spread love among our neighbours, without stopping to judge them or think badly of them just because they’re different.

In London, Shabbes candles should be lit at 8:25 PM tonight, and Shabbes ends tomorrow at 9:41 PM. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Moshe ben Genya, Moshe ben Hadasa, Shmuel ben Soroh, Chashachana bas Bryna and Shai bas Odeya. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!