Baseball, Cricket, and Tzedakah

Some have said it was one of the greatest sporting moments of all time. It took place just a few days ago at the Ashes, a best of five match cricket series played every two years between Australia and England. England trailed Australia by 73 runs with only one wicket, that’s an out, remaining. When the great English batsman, Ben Stokes, hit for run after run to pull England from the precipice of defeat to victory.

Although baseball and cricket evolved from shared origins, share some rules, and look superficially similar, they are fundamentally different. Baseball is in many ways an individual game. Each player bats alone and faces roughly the same number of pitches. His skills may be honed by his coaches and he may be encouraged by his teammates, but his at bat fundamentally belongs to him alone. He must face a certain number of at bats and it is up to him to determine his fate.

Cricket, in contrast, is about a partnership, because there is not one batsman on the field at any one time but two. They each stand in front of three wooden posts twenty-two yards apart and score runs by running between them. Each time a batter reaches the other side a run is scored. The bowler, an equivalent to a baseball pitcher, hurls the ball in one direction six times and then turns and bowls in the opposite direction. This means that in cricket, through deciding when to run for an even number of runs and when to run for an odd number, a batsman can maximize the number of balls he is able to hit and minimize the number his partner must face. If you run for one run you end up on the opposite side from where you started, but if you run for two runs you return to your original side. This is important if, like the great Ben Stokes, your partner is a far worse batter than you. Stokes not only had to think about maximizing the numbers of runs he scored but also minimizing the number of times his partner Jack Leach would be forced to face a ball. Stokes’ fate was totally intertwined with that of his partner.

The Torah tells us repeatedly to take care of the poor. “If, however, there is a needy person among you,” Moshe tells the Jewish People, “one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.” The mitzvah of tzedakah may be one of the most important mitzvot in Judaism, but how are we to fulfill this mitzvah? Are we simply supposed to give someone money without inquiring what he or she will use it for?

That is actually exactly the view expressed by Pope Francis, who told a Milan magazine that it is “always right” to give money to panhandlers one often sees on city streets. When pressed that someone might misuse the money and buy say, a bottle of wine, Pope Francis responded, “[if] a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that’s O.K. Instead, ask yourself, what do you do on the sly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in secret?” It is true that too often we judge others, especially those less fortunate than we are, by a stricter standard than we judge ourselves. But Pope Francis’ view of charity is ultimately an incomplete one, because he views charity like baseball. He sees charity as an interaction in which someone may be supported and encouraged but then, ultimately, they are left alone to make their own choices and determine their own fate.

The Rambam, in contrast, views charity not like baseball, but like cricket. According to the Rambam, there are eight levels of tzedakah. Not surprisingly, the lowest level of giving is one who gives unwillingly or begrudgingly, while the penultimate level is giving in a manner such that neither the benefactor nor the recipient knows whom the other one is. But the highest level of tzedakah according to the Rambam, might not sound like charity to us at all. The Rambam explains, this level entails: “entering into a business partnership with a poor person… in order to strengthen his hand so that he will not need to be dependent upon others . . .” Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch expanded upon this idea. “You strengthen him to live with you means the development of his life is intertwined with the development of your life. You do not live just for yourself but for him…True, one worries about themselves first, because you must acquire the means and tools to fulfill the calling of your life but helping him is also one of the callings of your life…His life is connected to your life.” The highest form of tzedakah is not merely to give to someone, but to build a relationship with them. It requires not merely giving someone the material resources they need to sustain themselves or even to become self-sufficient but instead we are required to take an active and ongoing concern for their lives. Like a batsman in cricket, we must live our lives not only to maximize our own gains but also to help those we are commanded to partner with as well.

Whether one is a cricket fan or not, its model of partnership should inform our thinking. Too often we adopt a baseball-like view of tzedakah, we view it as a singular act or perhaps as discrete moments in which we help someone but then both recipient and benefactor go their separate ways. Let us instead adopt as our goal the Rambam’s highest level tzedakah and aspire to build an ongoing relationship with those in need, because ultimately such a relationship will not only transform the physical and emotional lives of others but ours as well.

About the Author
Noah Leavitt has an MA in Jewish Philosophy from Yeshiva University. He received smicha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
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