Training the Hand to Give
Fri, 12/03/2010
Cast iron architectural charity container. Courtesy Moriah Gallery.
Cast iron architectural charity container. Courtesy Moriah Gallery.

From my teenage years, an emblematic scene: my mother, at midnight, in her king-sized bed, alone. Her face is tear-stained, and she is surrounded by a crazy patchwork quilt of bills she cannot pay. The scene continues to haunt my brother, an executive at Chevron, so much so that he has confided his secret imaginings. When he finds himself in the lobby of a grand hotel, on the way to his corporate suite, he glances at the corner of the stairwell, somewhat insanely, noting that he might sleep there, for free, if the dark times come again.

I’m really messed up about money. And I suspect I’m not the only one. I live breathtakingly balanced on a tightrope between two realms: a childhood characterized by scarcity and (relatively speaking) my husband’s pots of gold. Although we have a joint bank account, he is the major wage earner in the family, and I’ve yet to negotiate the terrain between my early years and now, between my writer’s/teacher’s salary and his Fidelity Investment portfolio.

Given my psychology and the glaring but relatively unmentioned fact that the disparity between rich and poor in America is greater than it has ever been in all of our history, I sought out Jewish wisdom on money. Two Talmud texts that focus on tzedakah are supposed to be read at every morning service. One begins, “For these deeds there is no prescribed limit: leaving food for the poor in the corners of the field.”

We Americans, living in a land built on those dreamy lines about every man being created equal, like to pretend that everyone has access to American splendor. We don’t want to admit to or talk about differences in socio-economic status. But the Talmud reminds us, everyday, that there are impoverished people in our midst, and perhaps more importantly, that most of us reading this paper have corners of our fields, despite the current economic climate, that should remain “ungleaned” — excess, that is, that is there to be given away.

Rabbi David Hartman and Tzvi Marx point out that the concept of tzedakah (charity) is related to tzedek (justice), and is centered upon a person’s response to the needs of other human beings. In an essay titled “Charity,” they write, Belief, in Judaism, is related to self-transcendence. “It involves not only dogma and doctrine, but also the psychological ability to acknowledge and respond to that which is other than oneself.”

It’s not enough to carry some sort of moral system in your head or heart; instead, we are obligated to engage with the world beyond our private sphere. At that point, belief in a transcendent being and one’s behavior are joined — both call us to step beyond the limits of the self. This is money as spiritual practice, with our marketplaces as potential sources of redemption. Imagine that.

My first encounters with a living, breathing version of tzedakah as justice came in my father-in-law’s home. Wednesday evenings, with dinner laid out on the crocheted cloth before us, just at the moment when he’d piled his plate high with steaming rice and cauliflower and broccoli, there was a knock at the door. Slowly, patiently, he answered. Welcomed the dark-suited, slightly disheveled looking fellow who’d come on behalf of some tiny yeshiva in Israel to ask for money. Ushered him kindly into the den. Wrote the check. And returned to the table, nonplussed, his food cold, waiting.

I think I most admire the patient, calm way he moved through the dance, Wednesday after Wednesday, never seeming to mind putting off his dinner, the interruption. A realm of the self that gives way, naturally, to the needs of another human being. The Chofetz Chaim says that while the Shulchan Aruch notes that giving 20 percent of one’s income to tzedakah is “an excellent fulfillment of the mitzvah,” this assessment only applies when a person does not know there are poor people in the city.

And what of us? The guy I pass every day huddled in the shadow of the ornate building on Broadway, my purse unopened, telling myself, conveniently, that he will only spend it on liquor or drugs. “Change, please,” he says, in a deep, gruff voice that plays at the edge of my mind until I’ve crossed the street, and on to thoughts of the student waiting at my office door.

The Chofetz Chaim says that 20 percent is the basic legal obligation. If the need exists and the risk of self-impoverishment is absent, a person is required to give more than 20 percent and even more than 50 percent to meet the needs of the poor. I think it’s ultimately a fear of uncertainty, that realm of “not enough” that lurks there in my inaction, my inability to open my purse. Given all the shuttered storefronts surrounding me these days, the roller coaster rising and falling of the stock market, the out-of-work friends and the newly diploma-laden children who can’t find jobs, maybe the uncertainty is warranted. Or maybe not.

The problem comes, for many of us, in distinguishing between wants and needs. Is the perceived scarcity real? How much has it been falsely created — by the voice of the American marketplace, its meditation on materialism, its endless stream of conversation about the things I need: the boots with the buckles, the iPad my friend is mesmerized by, the trip to the island at Italy’s heel?

Meir Tamari, in “The Challenges of Wealth,” says, “All of us, irrespective of our wealth, are unable, in our economic training and activity, to create a mental framework or a social situation where we will be content with satisfying only our own essential needs. Rather we try to provide all our envisaged needs, even for 120 years.”

That inability to distinguish between wants and needs, our archetypal hunger, reaches back to our beginnings. In the wilderness of Zin, the story goes, the community rises up against Moses. “You have brought us into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.” Note the irony; the Israelites’ fears are unleashed not in slavery, but in freedom. And so, addressing need with abundance, God answers, “I will rain down bread from the sky.” The stuff, manna, tastes like wafers in honey. An impossible image — God as the great baker, a yeast-laden universe implicitly rising.

Moses warns the Israelites to take only what they need; not to leave any of it over until morning. But, “they paid no attention to Moses,” and the manna that is left over becomes infested with maggots.

That inability to listen to Moses, to the voice of spirit, tuning only to the dark voice within, is, I suspect, still with us. That’s why the tradition elucidates 120 mitzvot, more than any other category, around the ways we earn our living, save money and spend it. And why Maimonides claims tzedakah is the penultimate commandment.

Giving away money works on our character. Perceiving the real and urgent needs of the other and responding to those needs rearranges our chemistry, connects us to better versions of ourselves. A chasid asks his rebbe whether he should give his money as a lump sum, or distribute it in smaller amounts. The rebbe tells him to do the latter, “so that he would train his hand to give.”

Training the hand to give. An almost naïve yet profound concept, in a time when, according to Peter Singer, a professor at Princeton, who writes “how easy it would be for the world’s rich to eliminate, or virtually eliminate, global poverty.” And he says this could be done, if only the top 10 percent of American families would be willing to give on a “scale of donations that is unlikely to impose significant hardship on anyone,” and yet “yields $404 billion.”

But let’s say that doesn’t happen. Then, it’s up to each of us. A story of Reb Nachman echoes the chasidic tale. As a boy, we are told, Nachman took several silver coins and exchanged them for coppers. He secretly entered the synagogue through a window, joyfully recited the prayer about unifying the Holy One and His Shechinah, and then placed one copper in the charity box. Then he distracted himself, as if he had completed the deed and was turning to leave. Then, suddenly, he would begin again. He said the prayer, and dropped another coin in the box. Again and again, until every coin ended in the box.

What I love most about this story is the genius of Nachman’s imagination, deceiving the mind, again and again, that the action was complete, and then, in that tiny Bretzlov shul, beginning again. Imagine living in that model of sustainability. Coppers always there, ready to be given.

In his small gesture, Nachman aimed at nothing less than the unification of the world. Money passes through our hands every day, potentially uniting and dividing us. Perhaps if we begin to see our encounters with money as spiritual practice, we can begin to see our marketplaces not only as areas where we merely buy, sell, give and trade, but as sacred dimensions, realms where we can begin to glimpse the highest versions of ourselves.

Shelly R. Fredman teaches writing at Barnard and at the Writer’s Bet Midrash at Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning. Her work has appeared in “Best Jewish Writing 2002” (Jossey-Bass), the Chicago Tribune Magazine and a number of anthologies and literary journals. She would like to thank Rabbi Rachel Cowan for sharing many of the texts above.