Jennifer Frankl / Adult Confirmation Class
In our Confirmation class we explored a range of Jewish spiritual paths. I realized that many of them involve giving or doing for others. For example – giving tzedaka, performing acts of loving kindness (chessed), supporting the Jewish community (K’lal Yisrael). And I have long believed that acting to help others defines both a good Jew and a good person.
Every year at Rosh Hashanah the Jewish community asks – How can I do better? I always see this as a call for me to look at ways that I can do more for others. However, this year at Rosh Hashanah I was feeling overwhelmed by all that I have taken on – I continue to feel that way. So I considered whether it would be better to resolve to ask for help rather than to find more ways to help others. As soon as I had that thought, I felt guilty. Asking for help or even receiving help seemed to be counter to the question “How can I do better?” During our confirmation class, I continued to mull this issue, asking myself: how do all the spiritual paths we’re studying address the issue of being the one receiving rather than giving help?
I thought at first that my definition of being a good Jew could be an example of “confirmation bias” (Get the pun??) rather than being grounded in Jewish text or tradition. Maybe I was just imposing my personal view that goodness is linked with generosity. I already had a strong view of myself as a person who gives rather than receives help. In fact, here’s a list of reasons why I shouldn’t need help – any sound familiar?
- Other people need it more/other people have their own problems
- I don’t want to bother people
- I am in control
- People like me aren’t supposed to need help
- I don’t do enough for others to deserve help
This feeling is so strong that I found it difficult tonight to restrain my impulse to give you a list of the things I do to help others to justify the idea that it might be ok for me to bring up this topic.
I don’t think this is all on me. I don’t believe I’m the only one who thinks that good Jews give help and don’t receive it. In Confirmation class we studied the famous “tzedaka ladder” composed by Maimonides. He said that the top rung of the ladder, the highest form of giving, is helping someone find a job, so they no longer have to be dependent on receiving tzedakah. And when I read up on tzedaka, I found several statements about how ashamed most of us are when we need help from others.
For example, Chaya Shuchat, an Orthodox writer, says: “Human nature is to desire to be self sufficient. Most of us are uncomfortable being takers and prefer earning our own keep. If, due to dire circumstances, we find ourselves on the receiving end, our reaction is generally one of mortification…” [https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/256321/jewish/Eight-Degrees-of-Giving.htm]
And scholar George Robinson writes:
“Judaism is…concerned with the conduct of those who receive tzedakah. They are enjoined not be become dependent on others. The Talmudic sages urged even the scholar to take on menial labor rather than become a burden to the community, and many of them were laborers themselves.” [https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/tzedakah-in-the-jewish-tradition/]
Although these quotes are specifically about Tzedakah --giving money to the needy – they have a more general message, as well: it’s not good to live a life of dependence on others. None of us wants to be a burden.
I cite these quotations to illustrate how I, and others like me, could see them as support for the idea that I should strive to stand on my own rather than ask for help. BUT - I also know that Judaism also has a strong emphasis on community, generosity and inclusion. We at Beth Am have lots of groups that help others in our congregation (such as Mitzvah Meals, Tikvah, and Yad L’Yad) as well as beyond our congregation, so it’s clear that we acknowledge that people in our community deserve our help. Beth Am works hard to ensure that those who need help feel cared for and accepted, treated as precious members of our community.
Despite this, we know there are many unmet needs at Beth Am. This comes not from the congregation’s unwillingness to meet those needs, but often from our own discomfort with being in need, even of a listening ear or a word of comfort. For example, one night I showed up at Confirmation class on the day my father-in-law was hospitalized, but I did not mention this to my classmates or teachers. After all, I thought to myself, I came in late, and people have their own problems… He came home days later, so don’t worry. But I realized that I’m hampered by my own reluctance to open up and admit it when I need help.
I realized that our tradition teaches us that everyone needs help -- even Moses, the greatest hero in the Torah. Moses is by no means perfect; he has his limitations, and thus he depends on others to help him fulfill his mission. In Exodus chapter 4, for instance, Moses tells God that he will not be able persuade the Pharaoh to let the people go because he has a speech impediment – he says he is “heavy mouthed and heavy tongued” [vs.10]. God reminds Moses that he is not alone, assuring him that his brother Aaron will speak for him to the people and will “be a mouth” for him [vs.14].
Also - in this week’s Torah portion, when Moses’ father-law-law, Yitro, sees that he is wearing himself out trying to act as judge and magistrate for all the people, he says to Moses: “the thing you do is not good. You will surely wear yourself out- both you and this people that is with you – for the thing is too heavy for you, you will not be able to do it alone.” Moses followed Yitro’s advice and delegated some of his work.
Returning to the here and now - Let’s take a moment to stop and think about all the ways that each of us can only function with the help of others in our daily lives – from the people who stock our shelves at the grocery store or pick up our garbage, to our coworkers, friends and family members. Despite all the reasons I come up with about why I should be giving rather than receiving, I realize that our lives are actually completely dependent on the work and help of others.
On our Beth Am website, our “Vision for Community” says this:
“In a true community, we can share the truth of our lives – our authentic selves, the real challenges we face, the deepest questions we ask, our imperfections and our highest commitments…. Beth Am is a place where we do not have to pretend…. Beth Am is a place where we give when we are strong, and receive help when we need it.”
At first glance I thought, “With a mission statement like this, how can I have an issue?” But then I took another look at the words “We help each other when we are strong…” And I realized that this statement could imply that those who provide the help are the strong ones. I know from living with several people who have a variety of disabilities, that it is often those in need of physical help who are the strongest ones of all. I think the statement might be better if it simply said, “We help each other.” For the fact is that sooner or later, just about all of us will need to be taken care of by others. And right here and now, we are all desperately in need of kindness.
If we can work together to hold on to the notion that each of us is a “person who needs help,” even as we are strong in our own ways, that may make it easier for us to ask for help. I’m going to work towards believing that Jews are interdependent rather than independent. And that asking for help is performing a mitzvah that supports our community and repairs the world.
I’d like to thank Rabbi Janet, Rabbi Sarah and our confirmation class for giving me time in my overwhelmed life to think about my Jewish identity and what it really means to be a good Jew.