A couple of months ago, my wife and I spent an idyllic week and a half in Far North Queensland’s Trinity Beach (near Cairns). Shame about the name! Everything else about the place can only be spoken about in superlatives – especially its serenity. The resort where we stayed (not for the first time) boasts vistas of mountain and water scenery riveting in its beauty and blessedly viewable from the balcony of our studio apartment. No prizes for guessing where I fixed my place for davening during our stay! Except that is on Shabbat which we spent at the nearby Chabad House where the rabbi and rebbetsin made us wonderfully welcome with their special brand of hospitality and chesed.
Granted that I sadly couldn’t find a minyan to join me on my balcony (although I was joined by minions of feathered creatures in glorious song – the very acceptable face of tweeting!) there was one other thing missing during my shakharit prayers. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what, at first. Then I knew precisely what it was!.
With all the paraphernalia with which the Ingrams habitually travel – electric fry pan and all, so that we don’t have to be bothered with kashering stoves – weight restrictions don’t allow for luxuries such as …..shlepping a pushke with us!
Now I have in the past attempted, when on holiday, to deposit coins in spare pockets or saucers or little compartments in our suitcases – but they always end up getting reassimilated with our other money. And so this holiday, I thought I would try something else.
On the second morning after davening I went to the resort’s reception desk. I reassured the manageress that everything was just fine. There was just one thing I wanted to ask: Does the resort have such a contraption as a charity box to deposit coins daily?
Now semi-rural folk in Queensland tend to be more the churchgoing sort. And indeed the lady in question was very familiar with the idea of charity collections in local parishes as well as tithing (which of course they got from our Torah – in fact from this week’s Sidra [Deut 14:22]). But no, the resort didn’t have a charity box. (Had the manageress not been unfailingly courteous, she might have added: after all, this is a resort not a church!)
She did suggest that if I wanted to access a charity box very badly I could go into Cairns central and I may discover one in maybe a sally-army shop or somewhere similar if I am very ‘lucky’!
I said to her “Don’t worry! As you can see, I’m Jewish, and in my faith we have a practice to place a coin in a box for charity every day except our Sabbath, without fail. Did you never hear of such a concept?”
She hadn’t. But she was very impressed with the idea, saying she hadn’t thought about it before. I figured that at least, having planted the noble idea into her mind, I had made a kiddush haShem in some tiny way.
It had never consciously occurred to me until then that the practice of rigorously giving charity daily is probably unknown outside of Judaism!
Indeed it encompasses a wider concept so mundane yet so vital that it apparently merited an accolade from a no less a rabbinic figure than Rebbi himself – the 2nd century colossus, Rabbi Yehuda haNasi who compiled what we now know as the Mishna, the basic Oral Law committed to written form.
A Baraita in Torat Kohanim (4:12), supplemented by the Maharal of Prague (d. 1609) citing the author of Eyn Yaakov, showcases an extraordinary debate between four famous tanaitic scholars as to what is the “gold medal” verse in the Torah.
Ben Nanas says it has to be ve-ahavta le-reiakha kamokha, “love your friend as you love yourself” (Lev 19:18)
Ben Azai says there is a more overriding universal principle: zeh sefer toledot ha-adam, “this is the chronicle of the odyssey of man – on the day that G-D created man He created him in His image” (Gen 5:1).
Ben Zoma says: both of these principles must play second fiddle to the most basic principle of all: Shema Yisrael “Hear O Israel, G-D Is our G-d, G-D is One” (Deut 6:4).
Then Shimon ben Pazi spoke. He opined that the most significant verse in the Torah is the one we leyn every Rosh Chodesh. Et ha-keves ekhad ta’aseh va-boker “Offer the first lamb in the morning and the second lamb in the afternoon”. (Num 28:4).
A senior sage (unidentified in the Midrash but deemed to have been Rebbi, several generations later) stood up and said: “I declare the opinion of Shimon ben Pazi to be the correct one!”
Extraordinary! How is it that a seemingly mundane verse about sacrificial lambs is judged by the supreme sage of his epoch to be a more important principle than loving one’s neighbour as oneself, the brotherhood of man formed in the Divine image or the Oneness of G-D?
The answer is, as Maharal elucidates: that ben Pazi’s verse teaches a quintessential value that the other three verses don’t – namely the virtue of serving G-D with unfailing consistency. One lamb (read prayer service, Torah study session, act of kindness, coin in the tsedaka box) every morning and one every afternoon.
It is only this which will ensure steady spiritual change and growth over time. Davening and learning Torah every day. Making a hundred blessings every day. And – yes – putting a coin in the pushke day in day out!. Say our sages: $1 a day every day for a year will impact upon the donor much more than a one off yearly donation totalling twice the amount. It spells out stability, commitment and total dedication. (This is, of course, apart from our other tsedaka and gemilut chessed obligations.)
We are approaching Rosh haShana, the “Head of the Year”.. Many of us pay our deepest respects to the Rosh but forget about the Shana. Judaism is not just about the high days and holy days. True they are meant to inspire – but the aim must be to extend our resolutions for positive changes to our lives into each and every morning and afternoon of our lives -consistently!
The greatest moral and ethical principles are of little value if they fail to translate into practical action. It is in this that Ben Pazi grasped intuitively and which drew the gold medal accolade of the greatest rabbi of the generation!