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Ham and Cheese and Tikkun Olam (Repair of the World)

A rabbi walks into a deli and orders a...what?

Summer vacation is an ideal time to experience new things, and this past summer, I certainly experienced something very new when I bought my first ham and cheese sandwich from a deli while enjoying a very pleasant vacation weekend with my family. If you are wondering whether you read what I wrote correctly, rest assured that you did. Since I keep strictly kosher and I strongly encourage all of my fellow Jews to grow in their observance of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, some explanation is in order.

Halakhah, Jewish law, makes clear that Jews are forbidden to eat animals such as the pig. We are further forbidden not only to eat or to cook, but even to derive personal benefit – financial or otherwise – from any food that contains a mixture of kosher meat and kosher dairy foods. Halakhah also forbids us from ignoring the poor and the hungry, especially when our intervention could mean the difference between their lives and deaths. The haftarah from the book of Isaiah which we will read on Yom Kippur tells us clearly that the true meaning of the Yom Kippur fast is to remember to give our bread to the hungry, to bring the downtrodden poor into our homes, and to clothe the naked.¬†Yet, how do I know that someone who claims to be poor really is? How do I know that when someone approaches me and says “Could you please give me some money?” that person isn’t lying to me about his or her poverty?

Judaism does obligate us to help the poor, but it does not obligate us to give away every penny we have, and in fact it forbids us from doing so, because we also have responsibilities to ourselves and our own families. Halakhah has developed an incredibly wise solution to this concern. It teaches that when someone asks us to feed him or her, we never inquire as to whether he or she is telling the truth. We make the reasonable assumption that the person asking must be in sufficient pain, hunger and suffering to have to resort to begging, often at great cost to his or her dignity. When, during my vacation, a homeless woman approached me on the street asking me for money, I did what the tradition teaches us to do, howbeit in a modified way. I asked her if she would like me to buy her some food and what she would like me to buy. She was happy that dangerously hot summer day to accept my offer of food and drink, and she asked me to buy her a ham and cheese sandwich. (For those of you who are skeptical about the halakhic propriety of my decision, rest assured that in addition to making certain that I was permitted to make such a purchase, I was quite careful not to wear my kippah when I did.)

You might ask, “All well and good, but why specifically ham and cheese? Why not simply tell that woman that you would buy her a tuna sub or a bag of chips and a soda?” My simple answer is that I bought her what she asked for. Tzedakah, the obligation to act justly by giving to the poor, is a twofold commandment. We support the poor person physically but we do so in a way that preserves his or her dignity. That is why giving someone a loan or a job is the highest of Judaism’s eight levels of tzedakah. If you can’t give someone a loan or a job, you are still obligated to support him or her, yet then you are even more obligated to preserve that person’s dignity. That woman asked me for what she felt would make her happy and would nourish her. Telling her what I would buy for her, thus giving her no say in the matter, would have been infantilizing and paternalistic. It might have hurt her already damaged dignity.

During Rosh Hashanah, we read about Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son, Isaac. Many of us once again wondered in scandalized silence how God could have demanded this of him and how he could ever have complied with such moral passivity. Perhaps we read a passage like this one from the Torah precisely to remember how not to act. This forces us to recall the other Abraham of the Torah, that intimate partner of the God of justice who, when God planned to wipe out the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah without checking to find out if any innocent people resided in them, stood up and demanded: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth behave justly?” That way, when the seemingly insignificant injustices of daily life, such as an anonymous, easy to ignore, homeless woman on a street corner, upset our comfortable, vacationing, summer time composure, we can look those injustices in the eye and say, as Abraham did: Hineni. Here I am, God, here we are, God, ready to feed and support Your children.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.
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