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For Right’s Sake ~ Pay It Forward

May 7, 2010

This week’s portions, B’har ~ B’chukotai are filled with, surprise, surprise…. rules.  Yes people we are still in Leviticus, G-d’s rulebook.  There is much ado about the value of land, the redemption of slaves and the rules for working and selling your lands or selling your house, your slaves.  As usual, I have to digress for a moment.  The portion is very specific about the value of men and women at various ages.  Of course it is no shock that men in their prime are worth 50 shekels and women only 30.  But older women are relatively worth more than older men.  At least that part seems right! Much more intriguing generally, however, is the idea of tzedakah or charity that is contained in these verses.  This portion makes it clear that it is part of our obligation as Jews to treat the poor and the dispossessed with dignity and charity.  What is surprising is what charity means for us.  Rabbi Rapport, again, hits the nail on the head when he says that charity for Christians is equated with kindness where for Jews it is, or should be, equated with justice.  The word for charity, tzedakah, has the word justice as its root.  So the idea is that it is just for us to give; it is part of our covenant with our world, with G-d and with each other that we are to repair what we have broken (remember Emor and the rituals of repair).  For clearly it is we who have broken it.  Jewish commentary says that giving a loan, with no interest, is a better or greater act of charity than giving pure “charity” because a loan permits the recipient to retain their dignity and a donation does not, it demeans or belittles the recipient in some way.  Several commentaries I read recited stories of what we call “paying it forward”; the perfect example of pure charity in the most Jewish sense.  Give a loan and instead of accepting repayment, request that the person pay it forward rather than back.  I was the recipient, some years ago, of a generous helping hand from a friend during difficult times.  She told me to pay it forward when I asked how to repay it.  It was a wonderful feeling to do so.  When I was able to help someone else it was a blessing to me and to them.  To me, all this comes down to the idea that for Jews, you do right for its own sake, you do justice because it is just; not for the reward in the world to come.  I often talk about the here and now because it is what I believe and, in addition, it seems to me perfectly consonant with Jewish ideals.  You walk right because it is right, not because you might be rewarded; now or later.  You act justly because you will be content with your life, not because you might be awarded.  Rabbi Lamal Lam wrote a D’var about honesty in work, in performing services and a reality show in Israel.  The punchline from the Chassidic plumber, who did the right thing, was “the camera is always on”.  When you act in right ways there may be no person to see it but you will know and G-d is always watching.  May you know the peace that true charity and justice bring.  Shabbat Shalom.

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