What Do You Know?

Man, like all creatures . . . possesses both a body and a soul. And just as there are those who are poor in body and bodily needs, so, too, are there paupers in spirit and spiritual needs. Thus, the mitzvah of charity includes both physical charity and spiritual charity. In the words of our sages: “[It is written:] ‘If you see a naked person, you should cover him.’ What is the meaning of this? If you see a person who is naked of the words of Torah, take him into your home, teach him to read the Shema and pray, teach him… and enjoin him regarding the mitzvot….”

Regarding material charity, the law is that the material pauper is also obligated [to give], for even the most impoverished person can find a way to help his fellow pauper. The same applies to spiritual charity. There is no man or woman in Israel who cannot, in some way, influence his or her fellow Jews and bring them closer to the fear of Heaven, the Torah and the mitzvot.

Freely translated excerpt from the very first “public letter” written by the Rebbe
dated Elul 18, 5710 (August 31, 1950)
Printed in Igrot Kodesh vol. 3, pg. 463-4.
As quoted from “A Poor Man’s Gift”
in the “What the Rebbe Taught Me” series

When I attended my former One Law congregation, it used to bother me a little to teach. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved to teach. I used to craft a lesson the way I write blogs. I’d find inspiration everywhere. I couldn’t read the Bible without getting ideas for future lessons.

But there’s a problem.

I have absolutely no formal educational or vocational background in teaching on Biblical and religious topics. I’m kind of a blockhead that way. I tend to teach as I write; not so much on the nuts and bolts facts, translations, and Greek or Hebrew “wordplay” you see on so many other religious blogs, but on the themes raised by the text and the moral and ethical lessons we can glean from the Word.

It still bothers me to blog for pretty much the same reasons it bothered me to teach. At least now, I’m only representing myself and not a congregation or organization. I don’t have to be worried that what I say and my personal opinions will reflect poorly on others. Now, when I (virtually) shoot off my big mouth, it only reflects poorly (or otherwise) on me.

Well, that’s not absolutely true. As a disciple of Jesus and a worshiper of the God of Abraham, anything I say or do, for good or for ill, reflects upon my Creator. That’s hardly to be taken lightly, but on the other hand, with so many religious bloggers out there, one or two others are probably going to make a few mistakes, too. That’s no excuse of course, but I have to plead that I’m only human. My mistakes are my own, not God’s.

Just in case you were wondering, just how many blogs and bloggers are out there, (I can’t drill down to the specific number of religious blogs, alas) according to nielsen.com, at the end of 2011, there were “over 181 million blogs around the world, up from 36 million only five years earlier.”


That’s pretty humbling.

If you’re one of those bloggers and you think your blog is really cool beans, just remember that no matter what you write and how important it is to you, there are almost 200 million other bloggers out there who feel the same way about their messages. Talk about a drop in a bucket.

HumbleThere are a lot of reasons why I continually entertain the thought that I should just quit. Especially after a “bad day” online, I brood a bit and figure I’ll set a date to stop blogging, delete my Facebook and twitter accounts, and let the rest of the world duke it out in cyberspace. I’m sure there are a lot of other things I could do with my time besides blogging a ridiculous amount in the Christian/Jewish/Messianic blogosphere. Besides, it’s not as if my one little online contribution could possibly make any sort of difference in the greater scheme of things.

But remember that I quoted from the Rebbe’s letter at the start of this particular missive.

Often, I use my blog as a platform to encourage and support giving tzedakah in a variety of forms, including material, emotional, and spiritual. But Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson in this commentary presents another idea:

What is often overlooked, however, is the fact that charity not only means feeding empty stomachs, but also includes the nourishing of needy hearts, ignorant minds, misguided spirits, and stagnant souls.

While a now-famous Jewish teaching states, “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world,” according to one Talmudic master, “He who teaches Torah to his neighbor’s son is regarded by Scripture as though he created him.”

But wouldn’t that presuppose being a competent Torah teacher? I mean, it’s not like just anyone can teach Torah or, to put it in more “Christian” terms, it’s not like just anybody can be a Bible teacher.

According to our aforementioned commentary, the Rebbe was fond of quoting the following:

“If only you know aleph (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet) – teach aleph!”

-Old Chassidic Proverb

I suppose that’s sort of like saying, “if you only know the ABCs, teach the ABCs.” But what does that have to do with teaching the Bible or blogging about religious topics, particularly if you are untrained and uneducated?

Herb Brin, a noted author and the editor of four newspapers, met with the Rebbe after becoming editor of the L.A.-based Jewish newspaper Heritage. The private audience lasted six hours. At some point, the following exchange took place:

“Rebbe, I recently became editor of a Jewish publication. The problem is, I know very little about my people and their heritage. Do I have the right to make sensitive editorial judgments as I do not understand Hebrew, my Jewish education was truncated, and I only know fragments of Yiddish?”

Looking him in the eye, the Rebbe said, “Do you have the right to withhold that which you do know?”

OK, that was only a longer and slightly more detailed commentary on what Rabbi Kalmenson said a moment earlier, so not much more was illuminated.

There are actually two problems here. The first is that you should teach only what you are competent to teach. That can be a tough one because human beings are notorious for grossly overestimating what they know and how far their skill sets can take them. The blogosphere is replete with self-appointed “experts” in their fields, particularly when the field is religion, so it would be easy for someone with limited qualifications, or even a reasonably well-educated person, but with a serious ax to grind, to use Rabbi Kalmenson’s lesson as tacit permission to rattle off whatever “teachings” they feel capable of presenting to a spiritually hungry and needy audience.

I can’t speak for all bloggers everywhere, but for my own part, I make every effort to teach and write within the boundaries of my knowledge. I also have a trusted friend or two who, behind the scenes, lets me know when I’ve gone a bit too far.

But what about the second problem?

Say that as a student, I have the right, even the obligation, to teach, to inform, to educate, to share information with those uninformed; but how dare I encourage others when it comes to Jewish observance? How can I promote the practice of a lifestyle that I myself continue to struggle with?

That is an absolutely excellent question, and one that we should all consider when consulting the various blogs out there (including mine) that suggest how to go about living a moral, ethical, and spiritual lifestyle. How can you know if the author is living up to the standards he or she is teaching to others?

The Rebbe had an answer for that one, too.

A college student once approached the Rebbe in the middle of a chassidic gathering to greet him with a l’chaim. The Rebbe turned and asked him if he was involved with encouraging and helping his fellow students to put on tefillin every day.”But Rebbe,” admitted the young man, “I myself don’t put on tefillin every day!”

“Why is that their fault…?” replied the Rebbe, with a smile.

In sum, Judaism teaches that you don’t have to be rich to give to the poor, you don’t have to be a scholar in order to teach the ignorant, and you don’t have to be perfect in order to help others perfect themselves.

That’s absolutely amazing and explains why the poor can give to the poorer or sometimes, even to the rich. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to have a perfect religious or spiritual walk. Granted, I don’t think the Rebbe was suggesting that it’s OK to be a phony, a hypocrite, or a charlatan, but it is OK to be an honest and well-meaning person with a limited skill set and who struggles with their walk of faith and to still teach what they know and what you know to others. I guess on that basis, I’ll continue to blog for a bit longer. You never know what might happen as a result.

What can the poor man give? The answer is, whatever he has. Jesus talked about this too, but he used more concrete terms in his parable.

And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” –Mark 12:41-44 (ESV)

Now imagine that instead of material funds, the Master was talking about what you know, how you encourage, and your example of living out your faith.

What do you have to give? What do I?

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