Day Three: On Charity

So maybe I shouldn’t have said that the under-40 crowd at the Romney/Ryan rally on the eve of the election looked like the Hitler youth from the Sound of Music. But hey, let’s get real – they did.

Of course I was self-satisfied with each “like” and comment on facebook that I received in response – except for one: my cousin’s. She just said “WOW.”

My cousin and I have had a strained relationship – which I just resurrected maybe 10 days ago with an olive-branch-email, to try to patch thing up. Same as with her mom – my aunt – and both responded warmly and deeply. We were all, it seemed, relieved to have even one or two more names we could add to the roster of Family, which for those of us in my shattered clan means a lot. While I had been dealing with becoming an orphan; meeting and marrying my husband; uprooting myself from New York and moving to Philadelphia; changing jobs three times, it turns out she had been going through her own psychotropic whirlwind out in Ohio, with little left in the way of emotional energy. Funny how when you take things personally, it almost never has to do with you.

Anyway, back to Facebook. So I got all Hitlery about Romney. And then it turns out she’s a Romney supporter.

I’m sure this offended her deeply, and I felt queasy about it. Not because I felt that they any less resembled anti-semitic Children of the Corn, but because I imagined how disgusted I would be if she were to say that about Obama and his followers.

In the ensuing days, I found myself more attuned to the types of conversations I was having, and ideas I was putting out, on Facebook, concerning politics. And it was kind of fascinating.

People I grumbled hello to in hallways in high school were now engaging with me and my husband’s cousin, about the New York Times.

Friends of friends of ex-boyfriends of roommates from college were sharing links I posted, videos of Obama weeping. I was sharing ideas about marriage equality with someone from my gym and my estranged aunt, and trying my hardest to keep the tone positive and open, concealing my confusion.

Family members who haven’t spoken in years were fighting on walls, like some curated graffiti riot.

Is this what heaven or hell is like? All the characters from your life in one room – people from summer camp talking to your great-aunt, your exes and your colleagues linking, everyone all anachronistic and crotchety, crossing boundaries of time and relationship, philosophizing without consequence? I was nearing the end of the week with a lot of questions about how, where, and who we talk to about politics, when saying nasty things has become so easy, as we no longer have to do it face to face.

So yesterday was my first Shabbat dinner that I was hosting. Of course, in total un-shabbatitude, I was a nervous wreck for some reason, spent four hours cooking only to have the Husband turn the oven off (love you, but really!?) so that the root vegetable roast sat idly in what amounted to a tanning bed for three hours, getting dehydrated but not quite cooked. I really overdid it in the unnecessary ways – yes, I typed up scripts for the girls to read blessings over the candles, so sue me – and missed the point: to be absorbed in the quiet, langorous warmth of the evening, the syrupy lull of friends and wine, the slowing down of time. I was instead franticly, silently trying to figure out why all the food tasted slightly like kerosene, and hoping nobody noticed our sink was backed up and filling with a vegan pink slime of beet tops and sweet potato shavings that was rising dangerously close to counter-level.

But one thing I did love about last night was giving a Dvar Torah. For those of you who don’t know what this is, it’s kind of like a book talk about the weekly Torah portion, or section of the Bible that Jews read each week. The first time I was asked to do one, in an Intro to Judaism for Dumdums class I took a few years ago, I was totally appalled. Read the Bible!? I’m an Atheist! Listen to other people give their opinions about Biblical passages?! I’d rather throw up on myself on public transportation! But then I realized that it was really more of literary analysis than holy reverence that we were being asked to share. I could argue with the text. I could insult and poke holes in it. I could laugh about it. I could just use it as a jumping off point for something else. It was a place to be creative; one week I wrote a script where God and the Jewish People went to a marriage therapist to discuss their fraught covenant and made my classmates act it out. This is one reason I appreciate Judaism – snark, wit, and being a bit wacky with a holy text aren’t blasphemous, so long as there’s learning in there.

I wanted to share my Dvar Torah from last night here, because I think it sums up a lot of the ideas that my Facebook dialogues were inspiring. I hope it gives you something nice to chomp on this Saturday morning.

p.s. don’t tell the Shabbat police I’m on here doing this, as writing about the Shabbat on Shabbat is totally un-Shabbaty. But if it’s fun it’s not work, right?


This week’s parsha opens with Abraham mourning the death of his wife Sarah, and asking his new foreign neighbors to sell him land for her burial plot. When they offer him a plot for free, he refuses. The offer again and again, and still he refuses. Really, Abraham, they argue – what is a plot of land between us? Seriously, take it. He begs them to let him pay, implores them to take his money (best customer ever, eh?) Finally, they begrudgingly sell it to him, and only then is he happy and able to bury his wife.

At first I thought this was totally ungrateful. Why Abraham wouldn’t take the charity – the land – for free? Was it because of his pride? Was it because he didn’t trust these foreigners among whom he was now living? Was it wrong to stand on ceremony and look a gift horse in the mouth? Or was the fact that paying for the land was an important part of the burial important enough to merit his stubbornness? In other words, did buying it impart some special value that was essential, and charity would have taken it away?

There is an unclear grey area here, I realized. 

This got me thinking about other grey areas, in unlikely places – places where what is right and what is wrong seems so self-evident and clear that we rarely even bother to ask questions.

Charity in the wake of Sandy, for example. What is the grey here, if there is any? Is there a negative to giving in a circumstance like this? If so, what could it be? What would it look, or feel like?

The Torah portion goes on to reveal how Rebecca became Isaac’s wife. Abraham sent his servant back to his old neighborhood to find a wife for his son Isaac. Unsure of what to look for, the servant sits on the bank of a pond, and decides that the first maiden – gorgeous, virginal, happen-to-come-to-the-river-at-the-right-time-and-be-from-the-right-family maiden – to approach the water and not only share a sip with him, but also with his heaving camels, would be The One. And so, Rebecca sidles up to the pond, and not only gives them all a slug from her jug, but invites them to rest the night in her family’s barn. Going home, the servant realizes Rebecca comes from a branch of Abraham’s family (i.e. perfect. . . ) and the deal is done.

Rebecca’s charity was the sign that she was the wife for Isaac. The first thing this made me ask was: is it fate/divine intervention, or simply looking for the right qualities that made the servant notice her? Is the alchemy of charity everywhere, at all times, or is it a rarity – noticeable, awesome, strange?

Rebecca would eventually give birth to Esau and Jacob, with difficulty – two sons whose roles reversed, who were all upside down and twisted, and in her pregnancy god told her “two nations are in your womb, two separate people shall issue from your body.” Reminds me of our country. Divisiveness and generosity lived within this one woman; it makes us think about how the contentious, and the charitable, can coexist. Especially when we accept that there might be a gray area in between the two.

Just because charity is offered doesn’t mean it will be – or should be – accepted. Just because controversy and disagreement are present doesn’t mean love and humanism are not.

 I’ve been thinking a lot about my own political intolerance during the election. I bemoaned my inability to talk to Republican family members about politics, because they would become defensive, or yell at me and say I was crazy. There was no conversation to be had. And yet I realized, on the eve of the election, that I was just as bad. There was no language of respect. There was no consideration of the other side. There was fundamentalism on both ends, and a refusal to consider the opposing point of view, because so often – centered around civil rights, abortion, deportation – ethics and edics became indistinguishable. But being passionate needn’t make you deaf, just as being focused needn’t make you blind. We have a tendency to become myopic, but it is so important not to . . 

Obama lead with grace and gratefulness, and went on to highlight the humanism that is the quiet, deep sea under the choppy waves of disagreement. In his beautiful acceptance speech, he said, “You will have the lifelong appreciation of a grateful president. Thank you for believing all the way,  to every hill, to every valley.  You lifted me up the whole day, and I will always be grateful for everything that you’ve done. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy . . . What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on Earth, the belief that our destiny is shared —  that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations, so that the freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights, and among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism.”  

I am feeling an air of graciousness and charity ensconcing us, now that we are coming together as a country, even though we’re sort of looking at each other uncomfortably, as though we’ve just spent the past year trashing each other’s ex-boyfriends, only to find on Tuesday that they’ve decided to get back together. We’re suffering from the awkward hangover of ugly over-sharing. But I think both can be present at the same time. We all need to learn how to be with each other again.

The Hebrew word “tzedakah” – a central Jewish concept – is commonly translated as charity, but it actually means righteousness, or justice. It means doing the right thing, even when we don’t feel like it. And justice, too, is a grey area. For some, defending a woman’s right to choose is justice. For others, defending a fetus’ right to live is justice. For some, For some, accepting and giving charity is right. For others – such as Abraham – sometimes it is wrong. 

We think of charity as an act of giving – and when we think of giving, we think of giving to others once we are settled and fine ourselves. But is charity always output? What about being charitable to yourself? What about charity when it feels you have nothing to give? Sometimes we are spent.  Remarkably, it is often these moments of feeling spent, exhausted, depleted – just the mood that shabbat looks to mend – when giving is the most important. Sometimes, being generous of spirit, when it feels the most difficult to do so, is when it is the most replenishing. 

Even grey as a color is worth thinking about – it’s not just a muddy nothingness, but the combination of black and white – two stark opposites together in one hue. In the grey we can find both black and white; grey cannot be without the presence of these stark opposites. The grey area allows us to accept that there might not be hard and fast truths. The grey area allows us to contemplate the fallibility of one option the possibility of its opposite. Grey allows us to ponder how two opposites can be within one body. When you think of charity, justice, and righteousness, what are the opposites that come to mind? How might they, counterintuitively but truly, coexist in the same body?


Shalom! (Oooh, first time saying that – I like!)



One thought on “Day Three: On Charity

  1. The picture is of a boy in the film, Cabaret who is with a group of Hitler youth at an outdoor cafe where they sing the terrifying anthem: TOMORROW BELONGS TO ME.
    Most of the young people in Sound of Music belong to the Trapp family who actually escaped the Nazis, all the time singing things like My Favorite Things.

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