Sometimes you see something that changes your world-view. An experience can have a profound impact on your thinking. One of the great Rabbinic thinkers of the 20th century, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, had such an experience when he was on the move as a refugee in the aftermath of World War I. He was travelling in the middle of winter somewhere in Eastern Europe and describes witnessing the following scene:
“I saw a pack of hungry wolves running in search of food. All of a sudden they found the carcass of a small animal lying in their path, and they all pounced on it in ferocious intensity. But they were unable to devour the prey because each one jumped on the other, pushing him aside leaving no room. They bit each other and fought one another until they were all wounded and were bleeding profusely. They fought so hard until they all lay exhausted on the snow and only a few of them, the strongest, at last got their teeth into the carcass. A moment passed, and these too began fighting one another, biting, clawing and wounding; until one of them was victorious, and snatched the carcass into his jaws and ran.
“As I reflected on this savage scene, I observed the victor running in the distance, his path over the snow marked by the bloodstains for the many wounds he has sustained. … Then I took another look at the others. I saw that their wounds were worse … they had lost blood, their strength was gone. What had they gained from all their fighting? The shame of the defeated. They had been beaten by their fellow who had eaten and enjoyed, while they had nothing but their wounds; and their hunger, which had led them to fight in the first place, was still as intense as ever.”
We can live like hungry wolves that attack each other in their selfish desire to satisfy their own needs. Or we can choose to be different. The Book of Proverbs (3:17) tells us the following about the Torah, “Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are that of peace”. Peace and gentleness, kindness and generosity are at the heart of what Judaism is all about. G-d gave us the Torah so that we can live as elevated, refined human beings and not like wild, selfish animals. Every person is created with a physical, animal dimension and also with a Divine soul, “And the L-rd G-d formed Man of dust from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life”. (Genesis 2,7).
Witnessing these wolves in the desolate wastelands of frozen Europe made a huge impression on Rabbi Dessler. Judaism teaches, explains Rabbi Dessler, that there are two primary forces within every human being – the force of giving and the force of taking. All goodness is related to the power of giving and gratitude, of kindness and restraint, and all evil to the power of taking and grabbing for the sake of self-gratification. The wolves tearing each other apart are symbolic of human beings tearing each other apart, financially, emotionally and psychologically, as they snatch from those around them; their story tells us the results of powerful animal forces of cruelty and of being self-centred and selfish, putting one’s own interests first.
Judaism is the philosophy of decent and ethical behaviour, of giving and kindness, it is the philosophy of restraint, self-control and will-power, of transcending a self-centred world-view to embrace a world-view that takes account of and respects other human beings and also, of course, G-d. But it is also about action. It is about making a real practical difference. Judaism takes the most abstract, powerful, moral and spiritual concepts and translates these into dynamic plans of action. That is why there is so much detail in the Halacha – Torah law. Judaism is living wisdom from G-d on how to build a world which is the very opposite of the savagery of animal selfishness exhibited by the hungry wolves that Rabbi Dessler saw. There are two dimensions to creating such a world: on the one hand, ethical, sensitive and decent behaviour, and on the other hand, generosity, kindness and compassion. let’s consider some real practical Torah examples of both.
“Did you deal Faithfully?”
After death, says the Talmud, one of the first questions a person is asked to account for in the heavenly court is, “Did you deal faithfully in business?” Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, a famous Torah scholar and author, writes about the scrupulous ethical halachic standards of his illustrious grandfather, Rabbi Aharon Yitzchak Halevi Epstein:
All those who had business dealings with my grandfather, Jew or non-Jew, recall their relationship with him with the utmost admiration. Not only was he more than fair in paying his workers a proper wage, but whenever the slightest question arose as to whether he owed money, he would immediately agree to pay, no questions asked. He used to say, ‘If a spoon with even the slightest trace of suspicion of being treif became mixed up with many kosher spoons, I would certainly kasher all of them, as the din requires. Why should I treat a monetary question with any less gravity than a question in kashrut? On the contrary, in a question of kashrut the sin is only between myself and Heaven, whereas in a monetary matter it includes both Heaven and my fellow man.’
Sensitivity about causing another person any emotional pain or even discomfort is another important value in Judaism. The book of Kohelet (12:14) states, “For G-d will judge every deed – even everything hidden – whether good or bad.” The Talmud says that “even everything hidden” refers to any inadvertent discomfort caused to another person, such as killing an insect in front of someone who finds such conduct repugnant. Rashi explains that it is “hidden” from the perpetrator, meaning that he inflicts the discomfort on another person inadvertently. The Talmud adds that the phrase “whether good or bad” includes hurting another when trying to do good. It gives as an example dispensing charity to a poor person in public in a way that embarrasses the recipient. The Talmud also says that Yom Kippur does not atone for sins bein adam lechavero – between one person and another – unless one is forgiven by one’s victim and has made amends, if possible, for the harm caused.
Another important aspect of Torah ethics is found in the laws governing speech. This is an extract from a letter written by the Vilna Gaon to his family:
Every word is brought in judgment [before G-d], not even a small utterance will be lost [and not judged by G-d] … because the sins of the tongue are above all else, like the statement of our Sages ZL (Tosefta Pe’ah ch.l) ‘… and lashon hara is equal to them all’. And why should I elaborate on this sin which is the most severe of all the sins? ‘All a man’s efforts for his mouth’ (Kohelet 6:7). [In reference to this verse] our Sages ZL have said that all a man’s mitzvot and Torah will not suffice [to save him from] that which comes out of his mouth … In forbidden matters [of speechl, such as lashon hara and scoffing and oaths and vows and conflict and curses, and especially in shul and on Shabbat and Yam Tov … not even one word will be lost and not written down [by G-d in order to be judged] …
The Vilna Gaon also cites the Talmud’s words that “every moment that a person closes their mouth [so as not to speak lashon hara]they merit a hidden light that no angel or creature can imagine.”
Two crucial mitzvot are “Chesed”- acts of loving kindness – and “Tzedaka”- giving money to those in need. The Talmud notes that ‘chesed’ is so important that G-d chose to place a description of acts of kindness at the beginning and the end of the Torah. The fact that G-d made clothes for Adam and Eve, is recorded towards the beginning, and the fact that He buried Moshe, is recorded towards the end. G-d’s compassion and kindness serve as our guide and inspiration. The Chumash says, “You shall walk in His ways”. The Talmud explains this mitzvah as the obligation to emulate G-d: “In the same way that He is compassionate so should you be, in the same way that He is gracious; so too should you be.” The Talmud also gives specific actions to be emulated. The examples given relate to helping people in need. We are told that G-d clothes the naked, visits the sick, comforts the mourners, buries the dead and, therefore, so should we do all these deeds of loving kindness.
Some words cannot be properly translated. The word ‘Tzedaka’ is often translated as ‘charity’, a term which denotes the discretionary and kindly act of giving money to a needy cause. ‘Tzedaka’ encompasses much more than that. The word ‘tzedaka’ echoes the Hebrew root ‘Tzedek’, which means justice. And so, giving to the poor is not merely charitable but is the fulfilment of the requirement of basic justice. Justice demands that those who have inadequate resources are properly assisted. Tzedaka is not only about personal discretion: it is also about the obligation and responsibility to effectively deal with need.
Moreover, the amount to be given is not discretionary. The Halacha requires one to give between 10 and 20 percent of disposable income as tzedaka. There are many nuanced rules on how this is to be calculated, taking careful account of the unique circumstances of every individual. Generosity is not something that can be based on gut instinct. Judaism teaches that less than ten percent is miserly. And even ten percent is considered merely average. Giving a fifth of one’s income is regarded as real generosity. Very wealthy people are allowed to give more than that, because doing so doesn’t risk impoverishing them.
There is much instructive detail in the commentary of various authorities on how to calculate the ten percent. For example, it is generally held that the ten percent is calculated after tax, and not on pre-tax income. The problem is also addressed of someone who cannot afford even to give ten percent. Another area that requires direction from the Halacha is how to allocate one’s tzedaka money; how much should be given, to whom, and to what causes. The mitzvah of tzedaka needs to be carefully thought out using detailed halachic guidelines and not merely be left to chance. Judaism is the science of morality and truth and science requires precision. A competent halachic expert needs to be consulted on these issues.
Tzedaka has a powerful impact on the world. The Vilna Gaon made the bold claim that if everyone would give their particular required amount, it would be possible to alleviate all poverty and need in society. We express its spiritual power at this time of year at the climax of the Unetane Tokef prayer: “Repentance and Prayer and Tzedaka remove the evil decree.”
The substantial G-d-given rewards for this mitzvah are set out very clearly in the Code of Jewish Law (Y.D. 247:2,3,4):
No one ever becomes poor from [giving] tzedaka, and no bad thing or damage comes as result of it, as it states ‘The product of tzedaka shall be peace’ (Isaiah 32:17) “Whoever has compassion on the poor, the Holy One Blessed be He has compassion on him. Note: A person should recognise that he requests sustenance from the Holy One Blessed be He, and in the same way that he requests from the Holy One Blessed be He to take heed of his plea so should he take heed of the pleas of the poor … “Tzedaka sets aside all harsh decrees, and in a famine it saves from death … and it brings wealth. And it is forbidden to test G-d except in this matter [that is, that it brings wealth] …
Much of this is unusual. Normally the world operates in accordance with the Talmudic principle that reward for doing the mitzvot is primarily a matter for the next world, and not for this. Tzedaka is the exception, ensuring reward in both worlds. When it comes to tzedaka we are even allowed to test whether G-d will fulfill His promise of financial reward.
Many people think that giving amounts to self-sacrifice. Tzedaka shows the opposite to be true. It shows how we are enriched – through giving to others. The power of giving underpins all relationships, says Rabbi Dessler. The conventional wisdom is that the more you love someone, the more you give to them. Rabbi Dessler cites from the Talmud to show that the opposite is true. The more you give to someone, the more you love them. The love of parents towards children is based on the fact that they give so much to their children. Love in a marriage is also based on the power of giving, not only the power of practical giving and kindness, but the ultimate gift that one spouse gives to another, and that is the gift of helping them to become a more complete person. Giving leads to loving, and it is the foundation on all relationships, including the relationship that we have with G-d, and so, Rabbi Dessler says that we need to strengthen the force of giving within our hearts.
Drinking Salt Water
The wolves that Rabbi Dessler witnessed that day, through their vicious selfishness and unbridled instinct for self-gratification, harmed themselves. They were worn out and bleeding on the snow. A world of unscrupulous savagery and of taking is a world of destruction. Even the winner in the end is severely hurt. Like the hungry wolves, people often tear each other apart through unethical behaviour, lashon hara, and other nastiness. A world which functions with Torah principles, such as honesty in business, not speaking lashon hara, chesed and tzedaka, is not only more moral, kind and compassionate, but it is also far more peaceful, pleasant and conducive for human civilisation. G-d has created the world in such a way that it functions best when we live in accordance with the moral principles which He has given us in the Torah; as the Talmud says that G-d looked into the Torah and created the world.
Rabbi Dessler explains that the more a person takes, the more empty they feel, and that is especially so when a person blindly pursues materialism. Materialism brings with it jealousy and competition. Envy and competition often fill people with anxiety and cause much suffering, even sometimes financial, as people buy things they cannot afford so as to keep up with others. Being connected to G-d, and having faith and trust in Him, means realising that everything we have or don’t have, and all our experiences, whether painful or joyful, are part of His plan. And that gives peace of mind – noone else has what I “should” have.
Taking selfishly, paradoxically, leaves an emotional and spiritual vacuum. We all need physical things to live in the world, but they should be there for a higher purpose and the loftier meaning of living a good, moral and spiritual life in accordance with the eternal values of G-d’s Torah. Physical things alone can never fill a person’s soul. You can never bond with an object. The Vilna Gaon compares pursuit of materialism for its own sake to drinking salt water when one is thirsty; it just makes you more thirsty.
A while ago, I discovered a phrase that seeks to crystallise the essence of Judaism. Since I first saw it, it has stuck in my mind. It was a phrase coined by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, of blessed memory. Rabbi Wolbe was one of the great Rabbinic figures in Israel in the last century, where he lived after surviving the war by escaping to Sweden. I had the privilege of meeting him only months before he passed on. He was very frail at the time, and yet he was so kind to me during our short time together. I will never forget his encouragement and warmth at a time just before I was to commence my work as Chief Rabbi. Rabbi Wolbe writes that Torah Judaism can be summed up in one phrase which is the title of one his books “World of Loving Friendship”. This is the phrase that has remained with me ever since I first read it. Mitzvot are not merely a list of do’s and dont’s, but are part of our personal relationship with G-d. Mitzvot make up our world of loving friendship with G-d. Hashem loves us and when we perform His Commandments we enter His world of love.
This refers not only to the type of inter-personal mitzvot discussed above, such as lashon hara and tzedaka, but also to the spiritual/religious mitzvot that relate directly to G-d, such as prayer, learning Torah, putting on tephilin and mezuzot. Shabbat, for example, is a day of loving friendship between us and G-d, and between one another, when families and friends have quality time to connect in a spiritually. and emotionally inspiring environment. G-d’s world of love manifests in the numerous aspects of the laws and principles of Judaism. Rabbi Dessler explains that our relationship with G-d revolves around love, which is expressed through our gratitude, and our loyal service to Him. All of His Mitzvot envelop us with the warmth of purpose and meaning, with the inspiration of giving and compassion, self-transcendence and holiness.
Let us this Yom Kippur rededicate ourselves, as individuals and as part of the special South African Jewish community, to living in G-d’s world of loving friendship.
My wife, Gina and I wish you G-d’s blessings for a good and sweet year, and may we all together be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein