One of the prime virtues we Jews practice… try to practice, is generosity. The Jewish joke books are full of tales of misers. Froyim the miser used to weep into his fire because the hood he had had to buy was burning up. For thieves, we may cut a little slack – maybe they were hungry. Liars – the truth is sometimes hard to serve. Misers? Never. We laugh at these people. The Talmud tells us in a dozen places to have our hands constantly in our pockets. A happy event?: Put something in the pot. A sad event?: Write a check. Money should be like mikveh: comes in, goes out. Any expression of gratitude is a form of avodah – prayer. Prayer is good: donate.
There’s a Talmudic Q & A that mirrors this idea: Which is better? Twenty shekels given graciously, or fifty shekels given grimly which clenched teeth. Answer? The fifty shekels. Why? Fifty shekels buys more beans than twenty, and your good feeling is not the point.
The word tzedakah itself is old, upwards of 5,000 years at the least, when it meant reliable virtue. We use the word and the idea all the time: “He’s a tzaddik – a just man.” There’s a myth of the lamed-vaz tzadikim, the secretly virtuous people, secret even to themselves, whose virtue keeps the universe in order and anchors the turning world.
But – and – a part of this special justice is seldom mentioned. The givers are blessed. It’s a mitzveh, a commandment. The pleasures of giving are many and varied. Albert and I have reached an age where we obliged to be the recipients of all kinds of tzedahkah in many of its forms. You may not believe it, but the acceptance of righteous gifts is not as easy as giving them. We strive all our lives not to be recipients and when the need comes, especially in men, I think, it comes with a certain shame and even despair.
When I was in college, I won a literary award – 25 dollars, which bought a lot more then. It was the first money I had ever made as a writer and I went to my father, proudly, humbly, as a sign that I wanted to honor him, to offer up my first fruits to him. His face darkened, and he flashed out at me, “Do you think I can’t support you?” he hadn’t thought it out; it was his immediate gut response to acceptance of my avodah. So… I got my ears pierced, saw a movie, and had a maatjes herring at Radner’s delicatessen.
Some of this acceptance is a formality: people open doors for me that I can open myself. Some is deeply needed: our neighbor shovels the snow from our road. A few months ago, I went to a party and leaving, was faced by a hill I couldn’t have managed without rolling down it. Steve Posner gently, kindly, offered me his arm. I was grateful, very grateful, but wished I could have done it myself. Vanity. Personal vanity. That’s the problem, isn’t it?