Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Win The Lottery Jewish Style

Beset by financial worries, Fred falls into a deep sleep after tossing and turning for half the night. He has a startling dream, in which he sees himself clutching a ticket for the National Lottery, waiting for the winning numbers to be announced. By the time the first four numbers have been called, all of which match those on his ticket, he is transfixed with anticipation, eager to discover whether he has won the jackpot. To his astonishment, as the last two numbers are revealed, Fred realises that he has become a multi-millionaire, wealthy beyond his wildest imagination. Just as he begins to contemplate the life of comfort ahead of him, he wakes up to harsh reality, bitterly disappointed to find that it was all a dream. Then Fred makes a decision – he promises God that should He turn this dream into a reality, then he will pledge one million pounds of his winnings to charitable causes. He is resolute in his promise and is convinced that God will help him to win next time he buys a ticket – after all, presumably God wants the million donated to charity!!

Does this seem if not a little humorous, vaguely familiar? Most of us have probably already spent several lottery jackpots…. in our minds!! We imagine the luxurious lifestyle such fabulous wealth could bring and calculate just how much we would need for our various purchases. We may even imagine ourselves using some of the money for charitable causes. Maybe we think that it is more likely that Divine providence will smile on us if we do.

Actually, our attitude to charitable causes is a good barometer of our spiritual well being. Judaism insists that our money and possessions are not actually ours, but the property of God that is on loan to us. In Hebrew, there is no way to say it is mine or it is yours. Instead, we say it is to me or it is to you. This indicates that our possessions are not truly ours, but merely associated with us; provided for our use, but still really God’s property. A great mediaeval Jewish thinker, Rabbenu Yonah, reminds us that in normal circumstances, when someone deposits an object or some cash with a friend, the recipient must care for it, but not use it. In contrast, God entrusts us with money and possessions, which we may use for our own purposes – indeed, we are supposed to use them for our needs. However, we must realise that as He is the true owner, God will only continue to entrust us with the money if we use it in accordance with His wishes. If we misuse the funds by lavishing more than necessary on ourselves, thereby neglecting the needs of others, we may find that the deposit is withdrawn.

The English word charity does capture the Jewish notion of generosity to the needy. Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, the 19th century German-Jewish leader, observes that the word charity denotes a dependence on the good will and sympathy of the benefactor; whether to contribute funds to a cause is entirely a matter of his own discretion. Not so the Jewish concept of tzedakah, which means not generosity, but righteousness. It is morally right and imperative that we donate a proportion of our income to appropriate causes; it is not a matter of personal choice, but an ethical absolute. This helps us to gain a sense of justice and to create a just society. We should view the opportunity to donate money to good causes not as an unwelcome drain on our resources, but as a chance to develop our moral sensitivities and a contribution to the achievement of goodness in the world by performing this vital mitzvah.

Let us return to Fred, the man who promises that he will make a large donation to tzedakah if God will enable him to win the lottery. Midrash Sh’mu’el, an anthology on Pirkey Avot, notes that even if Fred’s intention is genuine, there can still be no guarantee that God will fulfil his request. However, if he is not sincere, then God will certainly not allow him to win the jackpot. Better to remain poor than to be proven a liar!! I have a sneaking suspicion, that while many people manage on modest incomes, winning the jackpot would not give them access to more funds to distribute to tzedakah, because they would find plenty of new things on which to spend their extra money. Suddenly, the up-till-now undreamt of millions are ‘needed’ and no large sum is available for charitable causes. Put in Fred’s shoes, how many of us really would give that million to charity? I wonder. Maybe it’s better that we don’t win to avoid facing a challenge that we will fail?

King Solomon (Proverbs 10:2) tells us that righteousness saves us from death. This has many interpretations, but is generally understood to be a reference to what we call charity. Our tzedakah can literally save us from death. How so? We may suggest that one of the ways in which God determines our future is by assessing whether we are correctly using our lives and the resources that He has deposited with us. If we are, then we will be allowed to continue enjoying them, but if not, He may decide to withdraw them from us. Increase in our charitable activities can indeed prolong our lives.

When we stand before God this Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we will declare that repentance, prayer and tzedakah remove the evil decree. (Musaf prayer) The truth is that we are already in the Shul, saying the prayers and repenting our misdeeds of the year past. Those two are necessary, but insufficient. We must also commit ourselves to greater generosity, more acts of kindness and perhaps most importantly, a revised attitude to the function of our own resources. Then we can be assured that we, together with all the Jewish people, will have the chance for a happier year ahead.

Friday, June 06, 2003

Shavuot And True Spirituality

Pesach has Matzah, Rosh HaShanah the Shofar and Sukkot the four species and the Sukkah, but Shavuot, which celebrates the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, seems to be lacking in specific observances. It has been suggested that while the other festivals commemorate seminal historical moments through the observance of the Torah, Shavuot is about the Torah itself, and, as such, it needs no ceremony. Instead of the externality of ritual, Shavuot invites us to focus on the significance of the origin and ideology of the Torah system itself, and to admire its momentous impact on humanity. Sadly, perhaps as a result, it is the least understood and observed of the festivals.

In reality, the Torah does describe special observances for Shavuot, but they are restricted to the Temple era. One of them affords us a remarkable insight into the deeper meaning of Shavuot, as well as a glimpse of the Torah’s attitude to the use of the material world. Two distinctly shaped loaves of bread were brought to the Temple on Shavuot in a special celebration. This may seem of academic interest, except for the fact that most unusually, the Torah prescribes that they are baked from chametz – leaven, the villain of Pesach. Shavuot falls seven weeks after Pesach; the intervening forty-nine day period is known as the omer, during which the days that are counted in anticipation of the coming festival. It is understood that physical redemption, celebrated at Pesach, is only the start of a process that led to its goal – the revelation at Mount Sinai. As such, the spiritual journey starts with Pesach and climaxes at Shavuot. It is a matter of great interest that such vigorous efforts are required to remove chametz from the Pesach environment, yet the omer period concludes by placing leaven loaves in the Temple, the locus of Jewish spirituality.

This resolution of this discrepancy reveals a great deal about the significance that Judaism attributes to physical pleasure. Pesach, during which chametz is strictly forbidden, seems to represent the limitation of physical enjoyment, whereas Shavuot signifies its ultimate sanctification in the Temple itself. As such, the omer period, which bridges the gap between the two, offers an opportunity to develop from the radical position represented by Pesach to the more mature one offered by Shavuot. The extent of the role played by physical pleasure in religious life has been the subject of extensive theological debate throughout history. Some systems of thought adopt the position that religious achievement is only possible when it is divorced from material experience. Celibacy, cessation from normal life and even quite extreme ascetic acts are not uncommon amongst religious groups, which have concluded that these offer the only route to true spirituality. Judaism addresses this issue, but reaches a quite different conclusion. Abstinence is never an ideal, but in various forms, may sometimes be used as a very temporary device for achieving a higher goal.

Perhaps the most significant example of this idea is the observance of Yom Kippur, when, since the pleasures of food and marital intimacy are proscribed, one ‘afflicts’ oneself by disengaging from the physical world. Yet the Torah requires us to abstain in this way for only one day near the start of each year; this serves as a way of reawakening our spiritual lives at the year’s outset. This is not the ideal, but a powerful kick-start to spiritual growth. The mystical thinkers hint to this notion in observing that Yom Kippur, which we are accustomed to considering the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, is somehow inferior to Purim, the day on which we rejoice and imbibe alcohol to excess. The observance of Yom Kippur may be essential, but its self-denying nature means that it can never be more than a powerful, yet short-term instrument. In contrast, Purim, when properly celebrated, enables the Jew to reach the heights of ecstasy using the most physical means at his disposal, and hence articulates a Weltanschauung much closer to the Torah’s ultimate model.

It seems that the human tendency to become immersed in material pleasure must be addressed by a temporary emphasis on its ephemeral nature and thus comparative insignificance. This is achieved by a strong, albeit brief involvement in spiritual-only pursuits.

The process that leads the Jew from Pesach to Shavuot is now clear. The requirement to abstain from chametz on Pesach is reflective of the nascent moments of Jewish nationhood that the festival commemorates. A group of ex-slaves with the potential for spiritual greatness, yet still beset by the mentality engendered by centuries of deprivation, was likely to abuse the newly accessible pleasures of the material world. Thus at the moment of their national genesis, it was necessary to forbid the consumption of chametz, which represents selfish use of the physical world. Yet the goal is not the rejection of physicality, but its integration into the Divine system. The seven weeks that elapse from Pesach to Shavuot enable a personal transformation to take place, hopefully culminating in a mature attitude to the use of the material world. All physical pleasures may be used - indeed must be used, but in a context and within a framework. These are defined by the Torah, the guidebook to the meaningful use of everything. This, the purpose of the Jewish mission, could not be given to the embryonic nation when they left Egypt, but by Shavuot, they were capable of understanding and implementing it.

This concept is represented by the two loaves of chametz that were the focus of the Divine service in the Temple on Shavuot. The two loaves are said to represent the twin passions that drive so much of human enterprise – material success and sexual satisfaction. These ambitions, so frequently eschewed by religious systems, are brought, as it were, right into the Temple on Shavuot, assuring us that the elevated use of every physical experience lies at the heart of true Jewish living.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.