Published in The Jewish Standard: Dear Rabbi. Your Talmudic Advice Column
I am a generally charitable person. After services one weekday evening this summer, I gave some money to a poor-looking middle-aged woman, a shnorrer who was standing begging outside of my shul. By chance I then walked from the shul behind her. After following her for about five blocks, I saw the woman get into a red Porsche sports car and drive away. I've been wondering ever since then whether by giving her money I fulfilled the mitzvah of tzedakah.
Trying to be Charitable in Teaneck
Sadly it's highly probable that you did not fulfill any mitzvah by giving that woman money. Sure, I could imagine a scenario wherein she was a truly indigent person who borrowed a fancy car from a benefactor to drive to Teaneck to beg for charity. But that story is a total stretch. In this case it is nearly certain that you gave an outright gift to stranger who was not particularly in need.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with doing that. But no matter what your charitable intention was in that act, I'd say that you did not accomplish tzedakah. And when you saw her get into that swanky car, you correctly must have felt that you had been scammed.
In giving charity to an individual you make an all or nothing gesture. If the person is needy, all of the money you have given goes directly to helping him or her. If the person is dishonest, you have lost your chance to do any good.
If you want to perform a true act of personal tzedakah to help a person in genuine need, apparently you have to be more careful. You will have to balance your trust in the basic honesty of your fellow human beings with some suspicion that others may be deceitful or corrupt.
Most of the time in cases of doubt you can rely on the rule of the majority – the assumption that most people act sincerely. In the case of your question, you followed the woman and unintentionally you clarified the details of her status, and by so doing you removed it from the pool where the preponderance of situations would have classified your generous act as "charity."
Related to your question, you no doubt know that we have more than one means to accomplish that aim of being prudent in your charitable giving in our community . As an example, I recommend the Jewish Family Services of Bergen County (www.jfsbergen.org), as one target for your donations. It is an excellent upright organization, with which I have been involved with for many years.
By making a gift to such an agency, you will benefit from the judgment and expertise of trained the social service professionals who run it, under the supervision of a dedicated and distinguished independent board of directors.
I can vouch that when you give to a charity like JFS you can be highly certain that your intended charitable donation will go to assisting people in need, and not into paying to fill the gas tank of a pretender's Porsche 911 sports car.
Realize, though, that even a highly visible public agency can be susceptible to corruption. The recent disturbing news about the theft of more than $5 million over a span of twenty-one years from the Metropolitan New York Council on Jewish Poverty gives us pause for concern.
Of course, we do want to live our lives permeated by trust. As you learned though, we need to intermix some measures of skepticism and judiciousness into it.
I consider myself devout. I go to synagogue regularly to pray to God. I understand the basic components of our services, including the prayers to praise of God, to petition for our needs, and to offer thanksgiving for God's benevolence and protection. But I just don't know why we spend so much time in synagogue reading repeatedly from the Torah and Prophets and Writings. Please help me see why I need to have the fortitude to sit so long in the sanctuary for such rote recitations.
Impatient in Englewood
You are perceptive in your understanding of the composition of our main synagogue liturgy. We engage in our central prayers in actions and expressions that have been popularly described by some rabbis as sentiments they call: Wow! Oops! Gimme! and Thanks! By that they mean: praise, penitence, petition and thanksgiving. And you properly ask about why we spend in synagogue a large amount of time reciting all sorts of passages of Tanakh?
In the same popular idiom, I can reply to you what we all know, that synagogue activities include a lot of Tada! By that I mean, many repeated performances of our classic and treasured scripts – the holy books of our scriptures – of dramas and stories – of poetry and lament – of philosophy and law.
Yes indeed, before Jews made it big performing in Hollywood and on Broadway, we constantly dramatized many great stories in our shuls.
You may be happier attending synagogue if you realize more openly that long ago we agreed to go there not just to pray, but also to spend a whole lot of time and energy performing our classic content onstage in a repeating cycle of recitals.
You already know that the Torah is performed from the bimah in the front or center of the sanctuary. On Sabbaths and festivals, it is read in the middle of the service, after the morning prayers and before the additional prayers. It's easy to see that the reading of the Torah is a central synagogue oral performance.
The role of "Torah Reader" is a recital role that everyone in the community gets to play at least one time. For the rite of passage for coming of age, the Bar Mitzvah Boy and the Bat Mitzvah Girl (except in most of the Orthodox community) prepare for and play this role of Torah Reader. For those occasions, the young boy or girl usually will study and prepare to read a portion from the Torah in the synagogue on or near his or her coming-of-age birthday.
It will help you to appreciate the value of what we are doing with Torah in the shul or Temple if you realize more clearly that we perform the Bible in our synagogues in several different ways. Here are three.
1. We perform our Bible in a regular repertory cycle. In this first performance mode, the performer reads the entire Torah and other parts of Tanakh in units over time, as scripture. Examples: (a) We take the Torah scroll out of the ark and readers read from it from the platform–i.e., the bimah-stage. (b) We take out a book of the Prophets (usually in print, sometimes as a scroll) and readers read from it from the bimah-stage. (c) On holidays, we take out a book of the Writings, such as the book of Esther—the Megillah—on Purim and readers read from it from the bimah-stage.
2. We perform Bible segments directly as our prayers. In this second performance mode, the performer plucks long blocks of text out of scripture and uses them as independent liturgies of their own. Examples: (a) We read chapters from the Torah as part of core of our Jewish prayers, such as the Shema–made up of chapters from the books of Deuteronomy and Numbers. (b) We read complete chapters from the Psalms as prayers of thanksgiving in the Hallel on festivals and elsewhere in the services daily.
3. We interweave short Bible phrases and verses into our prayers. In this third mode, the performer draws on scripture by making allusions to biblical phrases, verses, ideas and incidents to formulate original composite liturgies, medleys and miscellanies. Examples: (a) We combine or interject one or more biblical verses within many prayers. (b) We take phrases or make allusions to biblical words or phrases within different prayers.
You are right if you feel that this is a complex answer to a simple question. Over the course of decades of participation and pondering, I have found that our prayer services are wonderful, complicated and multi-layered. They are works of great religious expression and imagination. I find new meanings in my prayers every day.
It's worth your effort to continue to participate and contemplate the breathtaking expanses of our dramatic liturgical heritage. I hope thereby you can uncover new areas of meaning in our prayers and performances as you go along exploring on your lifelong spiritual journey.
The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month.Send your questions to DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com