The holiday of Shavuot demonstrates a method of gift giving that we may want to deploy when thinking about advancing social justice.
Think about it. What might have happened if instead of the whole counting of the Omer (those 49 days between Passover and Shavuot), and had instead received the Torah on the last night of Passover — perhaps as a gift for the hard work of putting together a Seder and drinking 4 glasses of wine?! That would have been more efficient, right?
There are many commentaries on the purpose of separating the holidays by 49 days. But all of them make it apparent that both the giver and receivers of the Torah needed to be prepared for the giving and accepting of this gift. After all, it seems as though the 49 day delay in the giving of the Torah was not a result of a lack of preparedness on the part of the giver. Rather, it was the receivers who had more preparing to do. When it comes to the giving of Tzedakah, it is not merely the content of the gift that matters, it is the time, place, approach and the people who we intend to help that define whether the opportunity for Tzedakah is ripe. Receiving the Torah prematurely may have resulted in an outcome different than the one we know—the emergence of an independent Jewish people.
Giving Tzedakah, effectively, requires mindfulness—awareness about the material objects that are being exchanged but also about the feelings felt by each person involved. This mindfulness made it possible for the Jews to accept the Torah and make it a defining part of Jewish life moving forward. The receiving of the Torah itself wasn’t an isolated incident. It came with 49 days of preparation, where the desire for the Torah led to extraordinary anticipation. Only when the Israelites themselves demonstrated their desire to receive the Torah was the Torah given to them.
When we think of the many gifts that the Israelites received before the giving of the Torah, they seem to be given by an omniscient and omnipresent God who rescued them from the Egyptians, gave them Manna, split the Red Sea, and so on. However, on Shavuot, we don’t see a God who knows what is best for the Israelites. Instead, we see another face of God – God as partner; God humbly asking the Israelites whether they will accept the Torah. The Torah may have been received differently if it were given by a high and mighty God who had little familiarity with the Israelites. Instead, Moses descended upon the mountain and then God is said to have descended onto the mountain. While it is true that God and the Israelites are not standing on equal footing, we certainly see an attempt to create a more balanced relationship, where God acknowledges the need for a receiver of the Torah, trusts that the Israelites will provide the answer that suits them best and gives them the opportunity to choose their own destiny.
Don’t people living in poverty deserve similar treatment?
In celebration of the completion of the Kentucky section of our online Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, we bring you another piece of Kentucky Jewish History.
Beginning in the early 20th century, a handful of Jews settled in the coal country of southeast Kentucky. Most of them owned stores that catered to the local coal miners. Over the years, miners squared off against the coal companies in a series of sometimes violent strikes and labor disputes. As these labor struggles became increasingly virulent, Jews were sometimes caught in the middle.
Polish immigrants Harry and Bina Appleman were one of these Jewish families who were drawn to Kentucky’s coal country, opening a general store in Evarts, Kentucky, thirteen miles from Harlan. After many local miners were fired for joining a union in 1931, the Applemans decided to help their families. They would feed 40 to 50 children each day during the standoff. During Passover, the Applemans ran an ad in the local newspaper stating that they would give away a railroad car full of flour to anyone in need “regardless of color and creed.” Each needy family would be given a 24-pound bag of flour. This donation was a significant expense for the Applemans, who had scrimped and saved the money which they now decided to use to help the needy miners. The Black Mountain Coal Corporation did not appreciate the Appleman’s largesse, and swore out a criminal complaint against the couple for criminal syndicalism. Although the charges were eventually dropped, the Applemans were targeted by company thugs, who shot into their home. Because of these threats, the Applemans left Evarts, moving to Brooklyn.
The Applemans’ story reminded me of the civil rights era, when southern Jews were often caught within the larger social turmoil. Many southern Jews tried to stay out of the conflict, but others, like the Applemans had done three decades earlier in Kentucky, made a courageous public stand at great personal risk.
As always, you can visit our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities for more information.
I had been out of town for a few days. When I returned to the ISJL office in Jackson, I was greeted by a co-worker who jokingly said, “Oh, you returned just in time for Itzik (an endearing nickname often used in reference to someone with the name Isaac)!”
Now that I, along with many others in the Deep South, have been visited by Hurricane Isaac, I thought I’d look at the name of this devastating storm.
The story of the birth of Isaac, which is also seasonally appropriate thanks to its Rosh Hashanah connection, is detailed in Genesis. The root of the word Isaac means laughter. Sara, Isaac’s mother, named her son Isaac and explained “God has given me laughter. All who hear will laugh with me.” Sara predicted that when anyone heard about her giving birth at the age of 90, the response would be laughter.
A child’s name inspired by laughter is one thing. A hurricane, though, is no laughing matter. But the laughter that Sara anticipated was associated with wonder. Hurricanes truly provoke wonder.
The Biblical Isaac, however, winds up representing more than laughter and wonder. Isaac represents a test of faith, in the story of the Akedah, or “binding of Isaac,” the ultimate test of Abraham’s faith in God. Kierkegaard, a 19th century philosopher, wrote “Fear and Trembling,” which focuses on this story. As he presents various approaches to God’s demand that Abraham sacrifice his son, Kierkegaard makes a distinction between resignation and faith. A resigned Abraham would acknowledge that killing his son is unethical. However, he prepares to sacrifice his son, because God’s command supersedes ethical obligations. That demonstrates faith, Kierkegaard argues: trusting God to avoid committing an unethical act. A faithful Abraham is confident that the telos (end purpose/final goal) of God’s command is ethical. He has faith in God’s ethics, and is confident that the outcome will be ethical. With that faith, he prepares to kill his son.
For centuries, the story of the Akedah has served as the primary illustration of faith in God. However, it can also serve as a basis upon which we can explore our faith in humanity. Kierkegaard’s analysis of the story of Isaac forces us to consider the end goal of the Akedah. A similar analysis can apply to service. There are times when we engage in service because we feel resigned to an obligation namely, to do good in our world. Sometimes, the end goal of our service, however, is not met. Service can have unintended consequences. We may provide a food pantry with loads of canned foods, only to find out that they don’t have a can opener.
A food pantry without a can opener is a simplified but not far-flung example of service that fails to meet the end goal. If we do not first assess needs, our end goal is less likely to be met. “Feeding the hungry” is a noble goal – but if we give someone a can of food without any way to access the food, he or she will remain hungry. Service that is motivated by resignation to a sense of obligation is most likely to come short of our final goals.
However, there is a second approach to service that shares the characteristics of faith. This approach is built upon a relationship of trust. In that relationship, Abraham trusts God to lead him to the end goal of an ethical outcome. Similarly, we can approach service with an end goal that is front and center to our work. We can also build relationships with the people we seek to assist so that together we can learn how to best go about actualizing that goal. With this approach, the assumption is that the people who we seek to assist are experts in how we can reach the desired outcome. We need help to provide help. At a minimum, we ought to ask for input, but there are times when it may not be a bad idea to follow the people we seek to help and who have the deepest understsanding of their needs and have spent hours of their time contemplating and working toward the end goals.
Itzik the storm was an unwelcome guest, however, his impact provides an opportunity to reflect on the relationships we have with others, particularly individuals who are experiencing hard times. Hurricane Isaac destroyed homes, flooded cities, threw peoples’ lives into chaos, and has created an opportunity for us to step in and offer comfort and assistance. In addressing this disaster and disasters of all kind associated with the human experience, let’s reflect on our end goals and the relationships we seek to honor and respect.
How have you been helping people impacted by Hurricane Isaac? Feel free to check out the work of Nechama-Jewish Response to Disaster.