I want to start with a story about the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th Century founder of modern Chasidism. There is so much to say about him and Chasidism—or Chasidut, but the two points I’ll share is that his name means Master of the Good Name, and people saw him as the quintessential Jewish saint, if we had saints—brilliant, insightful and totally attached to God. Chasidism, meanwhile, comes from the word, chesed, that means lovingkindness. The Chasidic movement grew up around his goodness and was in opposition to the type of Judaism in which we argued about every jot and tittle in the text, but did not feel the mystical connection with the divine source of joy.
And with that, I tell you his story about two young men:
One day, a wealthy man decided he wanted to see the holiness of the Baal Shem Tov with his own eyes, and journeyed to the great man’s house. He sat down in the Baal Shem’s study, making himself at home.
The Baal Shem asked him what he needed as most people came looking for something from the the Baal Shem Tov. The wealthy man told him, “Oh, thank God, I have no needs. I just wanted to meet you.”
The Baal Shem Tov responded, “How nice for you. Then maybe you will take a few minutes to hear a story I have for you. Only you must listen closely.”
This is the story:
Once there were two boys, Baruch (whose name means Blessed) and Chaim (whose name means Life). They were inseparable: where one was, the other was sure to be, through childhood, school, and early adulthood.
Then, as is wont to happen to young men, each married: Chaim married a woman whose family lived in the far east of the land, and Baruch married a woman whose family lived in the far west, and it was the custom of the time that the husband would go live with the wife’s family. Of course the two men promised each other eternal friendship, and in the beginning, wrote to each other frequently. As time passed, and families grew, and business expanded, their letters were spaced further and further apart, until they inevitably stopped.
Each man was successful in business for a time, but then, as business cycles come and go, rise and fall, Baruch’s business failed, and he and his family had nothing. Then, he remembered his successful friend Chaim, and borrowed money for the trip to go visit him. When Baruch arrived, his old friend embraced him in joy, and they spent hours talking, drinking, eating and picking up their friendship where it had left off. Then, Baruch told Chaim the reason for his visit, and immediately, Chaim went to his bookkeeper, asked him the amount of all his assets, and when the number came, he wrote a check for half that amount to his friend Chaim. That’s what friends are for, after all.
Baruch was overjoyed, and with this capital, started a new business that thrived. But, as business cycles come and go, rise and fall, Chaim this time suffered and lost everything. Remembering his friend Baruch with love, he went off to his town in the far west and explained his plight. His friend Baruch told him, “Chaim, I’d love to help you, but it’s clear that both of us can’t be successful at the same time. Now if it were just me, I’d help you, but my wife, my children and grandchildren all depend on me. I’m sorry, but you’re on your own.”
Chaim returned home and his family lived in poverty until the end of their days.
At which time both men found themselves together again, standing before the Heavenly Tribunal. Immediately the court gave Chaim a ticket to Paradise, for his friendship and generosity to his friend, Baruch, whereas Baruch was sentenced to Gehenna, a Jewish version of Hell. But Chaim told them, “How can I enjoy Paradise knowing that my friend Baruch is in Gehenna? Sure he was self-centered and selfish, but is that a reason to condemn him to Gehenna? I won’t go without him!”
They argued back and forth, and finally, the heavenly court told him that such horrible behavior as Baruch’s had to be punished, but Chaim was adamant. So they offered an opportunity for Baruch to redeem himself.
Here, the Baal Shem Tov took a moment to look closely at the man and instructed him to look him in the eye. He continued.
The Heavenly Tribunal decreed that the two souls would return to earth for another life span, and that Baruch would be a wealthy man and Chaim would be poor. When Chaim came to him asking for help in this lifetime, if Baruch gave it to him, he would be taken to the stairway to Paradise. If not, the original verdict would stand.
And so the two returned to Earth. Baruch was indeed very wealthy, and Chaim very poor, so poor that he lived on alms. He would keep only a few pennies for himself and give the rest to his wife and children. One day the beggar, in making his rounds looking for sustenance, came to the town where the wealthy man lived. He was exhausted, weak, and not well at all. The beggar thought that things might change, if only he could explain to one wealthy person his small needs: winter was coming and his children would need shoes and a warm coat, and firewood to keep their home warm. He knocked at the door and the butler gave him the usual few pennies, but the beggar asked to speak of the master of the house. He was roundly rebuffed, being told that the master was busy with important business dealings. But the beggar, whom we know can be stubborn, persisted. The wealthy man heard the commotion and asked his butler what the problem was, and was told that a common beggar refused his alms and demanded to see the master of the house! The master told the butler that beggars can’t be choosers—and told him to throw this beggar out. What kind of lazy bum was he? What did he think he was entitled to—such audacity!
And so the butler threw the beggar out the door and down the stairs.
Exhausted, hungry and depressed, the beggar breathed his last, and died then and there.
When the Baal Shem Tov finished these last few words, the wealthy visitor took hold of his head with his hands and exclaimed, “Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, that is what happened to me! Just last week, some pesky beggar refused to take what my butler offered him, and I had him thrown out, and he died right there on my front steps! But how was I to know I was being put to the test? This sort of thing happens a lot! I did not mean to be the cause of his death… What can I do to be redeemed now?”
The Baal Shem Tov suggested first that his riches had hardened his heart to others’ suffering. He added that, had he spoken to the beggar, he might have felt the soul connection the two had, and might have responded appropriately.
He also told the visitor that he did have one last chance: IF he left himself only enough money to meet the necessities of life for himself and his family, AND gave all the rest to the widow and orphans of his old friend, he would come to know peace in this world AND in the world to come.
I love this story, and it seems so perfect for this week’s text… Let me remind you:
If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kin in any of your settlements in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin. Rather, you must open your hand and lendsfamily sufficient for whatever they need… Give to them readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Eternal your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. Deuteronomy 15:7-10
This text is crying out to us to be generous, to open our hand, as Psalm 145 tells us, “You open your hand and each of us is satisfied…” As God does, so must we.
I think every religion, every moral code directs us to be generous, and I think the reason they have to do this, is because our natural inclination is to keep what is ours close, and to keep our hands shut. We Jews call that natural inclination our Yetzer Hara, our “evil inclination” or the voice that tells us not to put ourselves out, not to stress ourselves, to take care of our own, to find exemptions to being generous: I don’t have enough money; I have bills to pay; someone else is richer than I am; they make stupid mistakes—why should I have to pay? They were lazy; they are addicts; they’ll spend it on drugs; why don’t they just get a job in our economy with so few jobs…
And so each religion has its ways of encouraging us to open our hand, and our heart, focusing on the importance of generosity.
Jews have two versions. The first comes from Exodus 25(:1-2, 8): when God spoke to Moses saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, that they should take a gift for me, from every person WHOSE HEART MOVES them…and let them build me a sanctuary that I will dwell among them.”
We are exhorted to give the gift of our heart, because our heart is so moved to contribute that we can’t stop ourselves. There is an earthquake or flood or fire somewhere, and you have to send money to the Red Cross; you read about a starving child in Somalia and you take out your checkbook; you read about a child care center about to close and you send something; you hear about all the people who use food banks, and your check to the Redwood Empire Food Bank is out the door; or, your grandchild calls you up asking for help, and you dig deep into your pocket. That’s the heart connection.
But then there is what we call tzedakah, and most Christians think of as charity. For us, it’s not an option, it’s not a “nice thing to do”: it’s required. Tzedakah comes from the Hebrew word Tzedek… you know the verse, Justice, justice you shall pursue”? (Deut. 16:20) To me, that’s tzedek, tzedek tirdof, which hangs in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s office… Tzedek means justice or righteousness. It’s not necessarily the response of the open heart, it’s the responsibility to do justice, to help, to keep your hand open to the needy in your community. One of our primary texts that tells us exactly how to be in the world, the Shulchan Aruch, teaches that one cannot really be pious unless you give to others, especially the needy…
Does this sound different from taxes? I think not. But I digress.
Generosity does not have to just be about money—because it is supposed to come from the heart. As one of my teachers, Alan Morinis writes,
“You have money in your pocket, so you give money. You have no money but there’s food in your home, so you give food. There’s no food in your home but there are ideas in your mind, so you give helping words. There are no words in your mouth but there is love in your heart, so you offer your heart itself.” 
How many different ways can we try to overcome our Yetzer Hara, our inclination to do nothing, that don’t have to include money:
- Giving food to the food bank
- Offering to help a friend
- Visiting someone who is ill or isolated
- Donating clothing
- Saying kind words when someone is having a hard time or lending a shoulder to cry on or someone to laugh with.
But what all the great ethical masters teach us is that we have to exercise our generosity muscle as much as any other muscle. And they offer an interesting example: is it better to give 1,000 coins to one person or a thousand different people? One could argue the merits of the effects of 1,000 coins on one person vs. the effect of a single coin on so many people. But the effect on the giver of handing over money to so many people—that seems clear to me that it has to make a mark on the giver’s soul, and lead him or her to integrating the practice into their everyday spiritual practice. This practice helps us also to learn to see our soul connection to each other, so that we can soften our hearts.
Another, final story — a friend and colleague of mine told me about an experience she had rushing to a meeting in San Francisco. As was her habit of tzedakah, she carried a wad of dollar bills in her pocket to give to the homeless lining Market Street. As she sped around the corner into the building of her destination, she had her bill ready for a person in need, and plopped it into his cup. It turned out it wasn’t a cup for cash, but his coffee cup, filled with coffee. Once she realized it, she was ashamed for giving without acknowledging the human being in front of her. She ended up stopping and buying him another cup of coffee, by the way…
So what do we take from this?
- Figure out what makes it hard for you to give—figure out how to fool your yetzer hara, your inclination to close your fist, harden your heart and get around it.
- Practice giving—money, food, ideas, clothes, love, an open helping hand—regularly.
- Give both what your heart tells you to give and what is the truly righteous thing to give, especially to the needy.
And the reward to you will be great.
 Based on Abraham J Twerski, MD, Not Just Stories: The Chassidic Spirit through its Stories, The Shaar Press: Brooklyn, NY, 1977, pp. 22-26.
 Alan Morinis, Everyday Holiness.
adele pickar says
Meredith, I love your sermon. It is very inspiring and I can imagine that you told it very well. I wish I could have heard it but as you know, I was at Billie’s service, It was heartfelt and Cantor David was a wonderful leader and George spoke so beautifully. Did you get to hear him?
I hope to come to the minyan on Tuesday and I’ll see you then . hugs, Adele
Meredith Cahn says
Thanks, Adele. No, I didn’t hear Rabbi George–I had to leave at 10:30 to get to Spring Lake Village in time… so I left right after Billie’s son spoke (and I only heard a small portion of what he said). I loved David’s leadership, as much as I saw of it.
Marian Blanton says
Most interesting sermon, Meredith. Love stories within stories. Looked for you at JFF, Rafael, yesterday, but you were nowhere in view. Hope you and Sam got to see a couple films this year, also.
Hope everyone is thriving in this season of thoughtfulness.
Meredith Cahn says
We got to see Once in a Lifetime, which I loved. Couldn’t manage to get to the rest, for some reason or other. Also saw A Borrowed Identity, which was really powerful, and we should all see it. The racism reflected there was so similar to the discussions going on here…
Fran Danoff says
Thank, you, Meredith, I loved this.
Meredith Cahn says
Thanks, Fran. We’ll be delving into Rashi and some Talmud around this… I’m hoping it will fill the full time, because I’d love to hear what people really think…