On Knowing & Doing

There is a difference between knowing and doing.

We all know what is right, more or less. And by now we all, hopefully, have a general sense of what the Torah tells us to do. We know about Jewish values and mitzvot. We know we are supposed to feed the hungry, and care for those who have no one else to care for them. We know we are supposed to give tzedakah, take care of the environment, be kind to others, and watch out for our fellow man.

But there’s a difference between knowing and doing. And I’ll be the first to say that I don’t always do what I know I should.

As a child, I sometimes begrudged the surrender of my quarters to the family tzedakah box and the one at Religious School. When I learned that Jewish tradition teaches us that it is better to willingly give less than it is to give more but to do so grudgingly, I worked to overcome my selfish hold on my quarters. But it was hard.

And it was even harder in college and rabbinical school, when money was tight and I struggled to make ends meet. During those years, giving really was a sacrifice – one that even caused me to feel frustrated at times, because if I gave to another, my own plate, quite literally, would be less full.

I tried to calculate the percentage that Jewish tradition sets – no less than 10% and no more than 20% of our income is required for tzedakah – and I tried to take to heart the teachings that even a person who is receiving tzedakah must set aside a portion of what little they have to give to others, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t still feel resentful about it sometimes, or that I gave as often as I should have, or that I didn’t wonder what difference it would make – my meagre 10% in a world full of need.

The truth is that I don’t think I really felt good about giving tzedakah until the money I was turning over was money I had earned on my own – not through a token allowance, or through scholarships or generous parents – but through hard work and sacrifice. Only then could I truly feel a sense of gratitude for what I had and a responsibility to take care of those who had less.

Time is another thing that I have struggled with giving. None of us has enough time anymore. And I could sermonise about the society that makes us work ourselves to death; about the culture of over-committed parents and kids; about how much time we spend at our desks compared to how much time we spend with the people that we love, but I’m not here to reprimand you for what I suspect you already feel badly enough about. I’m here to say that I share your struggles; that I feel badly about it too; that I am also over-committed and over-extended; that I also don’t spend enough time with the people I love.

When I became a rabbi, with luxuries I didn’t have as a student, I again felt a sense of gratitude for my improved situation and I made a commitment to volunteer once a week in a local organisation, something I never had time to do while in school, and had always felt guilty about. I volunteer on my day off even though it would be easy enough to volunteer during work hours and justify it by saying that rabbis are expected to volunteer in the community, but I felt that would lessen the selflessness of my deeds and rob me of the sense of sacrifice that I believe goes hand in hand with the sense of fulfillment we get when we truly and completely give of ourselves.

And there are definitely weeks where I need that time for other things: for laundry and errands, for catching up on much needed rest, for cleaning my apartment, for socialising with friends…But when I’m not giving of my time, I feel like I’m not being the best rabbi I can be, or the best Jew I can be or, maybe most importantly, the best person I can be.

And still, I often feel I am not doing enough. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when we compare ourselves to others. I am sure that many of you, like me, have friends and colleagues who seem to find endless amounts of time to engage in tikkun olam – acts of repairing the world. They rally for important causes; they run marathons; they canvas on behalf of political candidates; they go to Africa with NGO’s and build bathrooms and dig wells.

Comparing ourselves to others in this way – feeling guilty about what we can’t do – eats away at our moral conscience; the weight of wanting to do everything we can to make the world a better place while at the same time, knowing that we only have so much time, so much money, so much energy to give. How do we know if we are doing enough? How do we know when we have done enough?

Jewish tradition teaches us, lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorin l’hivatel mimena – “You are not responsible for completing the work, but nor are you free to desist from it.” No one is fully responsible and no one is exempt.

This year, when I participated in the Shave for the Brave there were many different reactions to my commitment to shave my head, but I was surprised by how often people said to me, “I could never do that!” Each time I would think, “Hmmm….well…maybe there’s something else you can do.” After all, there are lots of different ways to do good.

Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr did not shave her head this past spring, but she did spend countless hours of her time to organise and encourage the rest of us. She was the brainchild of the 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave Campaign and she worked much harder than any of us to make a grieving mother’s dream a reality. After The Shave, Rebecca blogged about people who “mitzvah-shamed” her for not shaving her own head.  Mitzvah-shaming, she explained, “is the act of making someone feel inadequate, guilty, or inferior…for not observing the same mitzvah as the rest of the group.” When we Mitzvah-shame, we fail to recognise that even the smallest act makes a difference, and that different kinds of actions may have different degrees of meaning for different people. 

There are so many different ways to be involved in helping others. There are different ways to save people; different ways to give to people; different ways to get involved and support other’s efforts to do good in the world. We Jews often translate the word “tzedakah” as charity, meaning donated money, but tzedakah is really any act of righteousness, not just donating funds.There is no end to the ways in which Jewish tradition encourages us to help one another and to take care of the world around us. We are commanded to give of our financial resources to be sure, but we are also commanded to give of our hearts.

But when I think back to the guilt I felt as a struggling student who’s 10% was so very meagre; when I think back to the invective to give even if you are dependent on receiving from others, I can’t help but wonder if our own tradition doesn’t Mitzvah-Shame us just a little bit. 

Then again, if Torah didn’t obligate us to give no matter the direness of our own circumstances, would we give even when we could afford to? Give, not because the value is instilled in us by generations of Jewish teachings and traditions passed down and held dear, but because we are inherently generous? I like to believe in the inherent good of people but history and sociology and sometimes even my own experiences tell me that complete faith in the good of humanity is naive. Torah strives, time and again, to curb our baser instincts; to redirect our human faults. When we are struggling to survive, our instinct is not to give generously, but to cling to what we have. That’s why it’s so moving when one person gives their last bite of bread to another; that’s when we find ourselves asking, would I do that in their place? Would I be able to be that selfless?

On the other hand, Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot despair of humanity, for we ourselves are human beings.” Jewish tradition says it too, B’makom shein anashim hishtadel lihiyot ish, “In a place where no one is acting human, strive to be humane.” Many of us might not think we are strong enough to give away our last bite of bread, and we feel ashamed of that, and our shame holds us back from contemplating what else we might be able to. We don’t all have to be marathon runners and head shavers. The little sacrifices matter too. I have faith in humanity because I have heard so many wonderful stories of people helping one another, and because I have been ashamed of my own inaction, and I have turned that shame into action, and I believe that others can do the same.

I am so inspired by the people in this community who give of themselves in so many different ways. I recently asked the members of our TBD Facebook group to share stories with me of how they are making a difference in the world. There’s not enough time to share each story this morning, nor would it be fair to all of those whose stories I don’t know about, but I hope you will share with one another over the days and months ahead, because when we hear about what other people are doing, we are often more motivated to do something ourselves. I almost talked myself out of doing the Shave for the Brave. I could never do that, I said to myself. But then my friend Marci signed up and I knew that if she could do it, I could do it too.

On Rosh Hashanah, we contemplate how we can be better people in the year to come. How we can be less begrudging with the dollars we donate or with the time we are asked to give to our communities. One of my classmates and colleagues, Rabbi Joel Simons, recently wrote the following words: Through the High Holy Days we ask that God write us in the book of life. And as we conclude Yom Kippur we transition from asking God to write us in the book of life to asking God to seal us in the book of life…(But) what is a life worth writing? What is a life worth sealing?  We cannot simply ask God to write and seal us in the book of life; we must commit to God a life worth living…and a life worth sealing.” What actions will we take immediately after exiting the sanctuary on these most sacred of days? Hopefully, we will not be shoving others out of the way to break the fast! “Will we guide ourselves and others to a life worth living?” Rabbi Simons asks, “or will we go through the motions of another year and find ourselves in the same place one year later? No better, no worse, just the status quo?”

I know it’s not as easy as I make it sound. I know that not all opportunities to give of yourselves are easy, quick or painless. But I also know that Jewish tradition isn’t trying to Mitzvah-shame us, even if that’s sometimes how it feels. I think Jewish tradition is trying to say to us that we have to overcome the challenges of giving – the financial challenges, the time-commitment challenges – and give anyway.

Yes, we are all stretched too far and too thin. And yet, kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh, each member of the Jewish people, and each member of the human race, is responsible for one another. And I know that if we don’t take care of our world no one else will.

Yes, I am asking you to make your life a little harder so that someone else’s life can be a little easier; to give of yourself to someone else, even if it’s not easy or inexpensive or convenient. 

There is a difference between knowing and doing. Know that it is hard. And then do it anyway.

Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s Will.

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