Mitzvah

By | Sunday, January 23, 2011 Leave a Comment


In Hebrew there is a word "mitzvah.” A mitzvah is literally a commandment – specifically one of the 613 commandments in the Torah, plus an additional seven added later. But the term "mitzvah" is also often used to refer to any good deed. I recently attended a bat mitzvah (the ceremony of coming of age of a Jewish girl,) during which the Rabbi talked about the Tzedakah, which can be roughly translated as “charity.” According to the Talmud, "Tzedakah and acts of kindness are the equivalent of all the mitzvot of the Torah" (Jerusalem Talmud, Pe'ah 1:1.) Specifically, the rabbi spoke of Maimonides’ laws concerning charity and the hierarchy of charitable giving (Maimonides was a Jewish philosopher of the 12th Century – See Maimonides Mishne Torah of 1180.)

In very abbreviated form, from lowest to highest, Maimonides said the eight degrees of giving are:

8) The lowest level is that of charity which is given reluctantly.

7) The next degree is that of charity which is given graciously, but where the amount that is given is less than "fitting."

6) Next is charity that is given, but only after the recipient asks for it.

5) Better still is charity that is given before the recipient asks for it.

4) A step above is charity in which the recipient knows from whom he is receiving the gift, but the giver doesn't know to whom he is giving.

3) Next, says Maimonides, is the case in which the giver knows to whom he is giving, but the recipient does not know from whence the gift came. (I find this to be a fascinating distinction.)

2) Second to the top is the gift in which the giver does not know to whom he is giving and the recipient is also ignorant of the source of the gift.

1) Maimonides says that the highest degree of charity is that in which a giver gives to someone in need the means to support themselves (e.g. employment, a loan to start a business, tuition for school, and apprenticeship, land on which to farm, etc.)

This highest degree of giving reminds me of the adage "give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime."

Sitting in the congregation at the bat mitzvah I was reminded of a lesson I learned years earlier at religious school. The teacher told us a story. I will attempt to repeat it here from my faded memory. No doubt it exists somewhere on the web. It may even be a famous parable. Please feel free to point out the source in a comment.

There was a small village, with some dozens of people. It was a large enough village to have people of a variety of ages, to have a handful of shops, a small hospital, and a small school, but small enough that everyone knew everyone else. Among the stores in the town there was a shoe maker. The cobbler had learned the shoe-making craft from his father, who had learned it from his father before him, and so on. He had lived in the village all his life. And he was known for being quite stingy. Being the only cobbler around, everyone bought their shoes from him, so it was a good business but he lived very simply. Behind his back, some people would grumble about his wealth and his stinginess.

Eventually the cobbler died. Some months later a crack developed in the wall of the hospital, requiring repair. But there was no money to fix the wall of the hospital. The townspeople all asked "why isn't there any money to fix the wall? The hospital has always been repaired in the past." The answer, it turned out, known only to the chief of the hospital, was that whenever the hospital needed repair the cobbler had given the money for the repairs. Later, the new school year began at the village’s school. The students, who had been used to receiving supplies from the school at the beginning of each year were told that there were no supplies – that they had to go out and get them themselves. It seems that each year, just before the beginning of school, boxes of supplies had been delivered. No one had known from whence they came, but after the old cobbler died, the boxes of supplies didn't appear. Over the years after the cobbler's death it became clear that any time the streets needed repair, or a poor child needed new shoes, or disaster or misfortune struck, the cobbler had taken care of it, quietly, behind the scenes, in secret.

The message that the teacher was giving us was the message of the third level in Maimonides hierarchy. I always had a lot of trouble with that story. I find it both touching and bothersome. I'm troubled by the notion that this man who was in fact so giving, was so dedicated to the idea of giving in secret that he was perceived in life as stingy. I don't think it's incompatible to give in secret, but also be perceived as kind and generous. I cant help wondering, wouldn't it have been better for the cobbler to have said, "I have performed a mitzvah, and you should too"? Might his giving in public have made others generous as well? If he had inspired a community of giving, there might have been a generation of donors in place to pick up where he left off. I don't have answers, but, I find this to be a thought-provoking story; it has stayed with me all my life.

The main point of my writing about this now, however, is that I think we have a moment in time where the cobbler mustn't work in secret, where he mustn't allow himself to be perceived as stingy if he is not stingy. We have a moment in time now where the leaders of this nation must be aware of the generosity of its citizens. I am convinced that Maimonides highest degree of giving is truly the highest mitzvah. But today, and maybe only just for today, the second-highest mitzvah must be to give charity, but also to give to the world the story of the rationale for the gift. The gift alone is no longer enough.

I look forward to your thoughts.
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