On this day, the first of Elul, 125 years ago, in the year 1987, for the first time in thousands of years, in Basel, Switzerland, Jews gathered from all over Europe and decided they would take the fate of people into their own hands, continue the work begun a half a century earlier by Chovevi Zion farmers and pioneers, and rebuild the Jewish homeland in the land of Israel. It was the First Zionist Congress, a meeting that sent shockwaves throughout the Jewish world. Delegates from Moscow to the Kavkaz, London, Paris, Rome, and Vienna gathered to discuss the future and fate of the Jewish people.
When thinking of it, you may wonder why this once in a history event took place in Basel, Switzerland’s third largest city, of all places. Why would Herzel choose this city, of all the many options in Europe, to be the place to go? The answer is, Herzel didn’t choose it.
The original city of choice was Munich, Germany, which had a far larger Jewish community, and was considered to be a far more prestigious and acultured city than small Basel, a city smaller than States Island.
Yet once the Jewish community of Munich had learned of what was coming to their town, they united in opposing it. Reform and German Orthodox rabbis, whom Max Nordau and Herzel called the Protestrabbiner–Rabbis of the Protest, were so opposed that this Congress would make them look unpatriotic, united in opposing the Congress. They published a leaflet opposing it and even asked their local government to forbid the event. As delegates from far and wide were pouring in, some traveling for weeks, the event could not be canceled. In a last-moment rescue, Rabbi Arthur Cohen invited Herzel to come and have the Congress in Basel, which is where it took place. In a show of respect and gratitude on Shabbat, Herzel went to pray in the great synagogue of Basel, where he got an Aliya to the Torah, which he did with tears in his eyes and of which he wrote was the most moving moment he had in Basel.
For the first time in thousands of years, Jews began thinking of difficult questions of self-governance, what a future state might look like, and what governing ourselves will look like. Many of these questions are questions we are lucky to struggle with to this day. While we sometimes get frustrated with these questions, these are questions that we may have been privileged to deal with 2,200 years ago, but not much more than that. What does a charitable society look like? How do we care for one another? What is our flag? What is our official language? How do we reconcile different practices of Judaism when those must live together? And other questions we very much take for granted.
The transformation from individual, to community, to tribe, to nation, is, in many ways, the essence of the book of Dvarim. It is in this book that we are introduced for the first time to the term “She’arecha–your gates”. “In Parshat Ekev in the context of Korbanot, we are told lo tu’chal lizboach bisha’recha–you may not bring sacrifices in your own communities.” in Parshat Shoftim, we are told to appoint judges “Shoftim ve’shotrim titan lecah bechol she’arecha– you shall appoint judges in all of your gates. The move into a national homeland and large homeland requires more strategic thinking.
And yet, in our Parsha, Parshat Re’eh (15:7) we are told of this same term in a seemingly unrelated topic “If there will be among you a needy person, from one of your brothers in one of your cities, in your land the Lord, your God, is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand from your needy brother. “
Yet, one wonders why this verse speaking about the obligation of the Mitzvah of Tzedakah, which is incumbent on each and every one of us, as it says that even if someone is poor, they much make an effort to give Tzedaka, is written as a matter of a national strategy to be dealt with only after the Jews settle down in the land of Israel and is to be addressed as a national crisis.
The great rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great father of German orthodoxy and rabbi of Frankfurt, goes on to point out the sharp dichotomy in this commandment. “If there will be among you a needy person,” can only be addressing the entire community. Yet, in the very same passage, we are told: “you shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand.”
From these Psukim and more, Rabbi Hirsch learns that the Mitzvah of Tzedaka is unlike any other Mitzvah. For the Mitzvah of Tzedaka to be fulfilled, there is a need of a strong partnership between the individual Jews, the community, and in fact, the entire nation of Israel. One person at a time cannot solve the scourge of hunger and poverty, while the entire people cannot solve it either. Rabbi Hirsch goes on to criticize members of his own community who posted signs warning beggars not to knock on their door, as they already donate to the communal charity fund, as this does not fit with the spirit of Judaism.
We are blessed to live in a generation with three blessings hardly any of our ancestors have ever had: The Jewish people are blessed with a country of our own, giving us the privilege and challenge of asking difficult questions about how to run a country according to the highest ideals we hold closest to our hearts. We are also blessed to live in a generation with an extraordinary number of organizations that deal with and address any number of matters relating to charity. Name a challenge or a cause, and there is an organization that deals with it. From helping families who can’t put bread on the table to immigrants from Ukraine and other countries who left everything behind and find themselves in Israel starting a new life, to teens who find themselves in challenging situations, there is an organization dealing with it. We are also blessed with a generation in which the average Jew has more material goods and wealth than many of our ancestors could have dreamed of. Yet too often, it is the first two blessings, that cloud our ability to follow the spirit of the Mitzvah of Tzedaka in our own lives. As there are many organizations we give to who do excellent work, we forget what Maimonides has taught us, which is that giving and kindness is not just meant for the receiver and that even a pauper should try and give a small coin to charity once in a while. The Mitzvah of Tzedaka is meant for us. Being able to give is what makes us human.
Famous American anthropologist Margaret Mead was once asked what she considered to be the first sign of culture and civilization among a human group. She said that it was a broken femur bone that had broken and healed what she considered the beginning of civilization. Why? Because when animals break a bone in a debilitating way, it is the introduction to death. There is no way to survive. Yet if a human broke a femur bone, that healed, showed that people were caring for one another and that there was a future.
Despite the preponderance of the excellent organizations that are out there, let us each ask ourselves who it is that we can help ourselves. Who can we invite into our home, what relative or neighbor in need we might have that only we know about and can help, and who can prevent from falling into poverty if we help them before they crash. Let us combine both the Ki yi’hyeh be’kirbecah–if there is among your community, as well as the patoach tiftach–open your hand.
As we celebrate 125 years to the first Zionist Congress, the Jewish people taking responsibility for our own future, and the undreamable success of the state of Israel, let us remember that while we have arrived in the promised Land already, there is so much ahead of us. Let us think of the future of today’s children, ask ourselves how to improve their lives, and what it is that we can do that all of our she’arim, will be blessed with peace, tranquility, and fulfillment of Hashem’s promises and blessings.