“And he shall give.”
This has been a very difficult year for the single mothers who work in the hospitality industry, the barista at my local coffee shop who lives in the living room of a one-bedroom apartment with three roommates, the healthcare workers who have been working tirelessly since March, the staff at the front desk of my large apartment building, the school teachers who returned to the classroom in the middle the pandemic, the TSA workers who have been exposed to the million people who passed through the airports over Thanksgiving, those who lost loved ones, or almost lost themselves.
This has been a very difficult year for all of us, and if there was ever a time to give just a little bit more in any way we can and to anyone in need, this would be the time. Today the Talmud discusses giving just a little more in the context of repaying our debts and making amends for transgressions. We are told that if one unwittingly eats teruma – the portion of food that should be set aside for the priests – he should pay compensation that is equal to the value of the food he consumed, plus an additional fifth.
The principle is simple: “one who unwittingly eats teruma pays the principal and an additional fifth, both one who eats it, and one who drinks it.” This principle also applies if one anoints himself with teruma oil. The Rabbis consider all contingencies and if one accidentally consumes the additional one-fifth, then he must pay “an additional fifth of the fifth.” If the value of the teruma declines before he can make the priests whole, he must pay the original value at the onset, plus the additional one-fifth.
There is no concept of depreciation when paying for one’s transgressions. We are told that one is “now worse than a thief” if he does not repay the value of the teruma at the time it was improperly consumed. The mishna tells us accordingly that “all thieves must repay what they have stolen according to the value of the stolen object at the time it was stolen, even if its value subsequently goes down.”
The text is unclear concerning what the payment would be if the teruma increased in value from the time it was consumed. If its value increased, is the payment required in the amount of its original value when it was consumed or its current value? There is also some debate if one over-pays the debt and if this act is one of generosity and deserving of a blessing. The debate is extended to the price that one should pay if he eats leaven on Passover. The leaven could be worthless if it had not been burned before Passover, but the punishment for violating the leaven laws could result in the worst possible outcome – one of spiritual death in the court of the Rabbis.
This is the year to consider giving just a little bit more – perhaps one-fifth is the right measure. It can be through an annual contribution to charity, or just one-fifth more in kindness to the people who are working on the front lines to keep us healthy, safe and stocked with basic necessities. Just think about it. If we all gave one-fifth more, in whatever way we can, would the world be just one-fifth a better place than it is today? Perhaps with everything we have lived through, we can find hope in the idea of giving just a little bit more.
And it’s not just about giving more money. It is also about taking five extra minutes and asking the barista at your local coffee shop how she is doing. The young woman I interact with each day when I order my morning latte arrived here just before the pandemic with her big city dreams. She sleeps in the living room of a small apartment with several roommates and tries hard to be quiet when she gets up in the morning in order not to disturb them. She represents everything that is special about this city and I have promised myself to remember to ask how she is doing instead of muttering my order and slouching away each morning with my coffee in-hand.
If there was ever a year to dig into our pockets and dig into our hearts and do what we can to make things just a little bit better, it would be this year.