Shabbat Rest

Premeditated Acts of Kindness

One winter Friday evening after services, I happened to walk home in the company of a talkative Seminary student. As we made our way down Broadway, we passed a weary and emaciated man whispering for some spare change. On Shabbat I pay less heed to such heartrending pleas because I don’t have any money with me. Neither did my young companion. Yet he politely interrupted our animated conversation and asked the man whether he would like a sandwich. When he responded with evident joy that he would, the student pulled out a neatly wrapped sandwich from his plastic bag and gave it to him. Obviously, unlike me, the student did not allow Shabbat to prevent him from aiding the homeless who crowd the sidewalks of Broadway in the midst of the academic acropolis known as Morningside Heights. Though we met no more homeless before we parted company, for all I knew my companion still had another sandwich or two left in his bag to feed the hungry. His unobtrusive display of forethought and compassion stirred me deeply, as it filled me with pride.

-Ismar Schorsch
“A Stitch in Time” (pg 441, May 20, 1995)
Commentary on Torah Portion Behar
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

I read Schorsch’s commentaries on the weekly Parashat as a matter of devotion each Shabbat morning, but this time I was almost startled at the parallel between the incident he reported and the Gospel reading for Behar as recommended by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) (Each year near the beginning of the Torah cycle, FFOZ provides a list of the parashat readings for the coming year on PDF for anyone who cares to download it).

Here’s what I had read just minutes before:

On that day of Shabbat, he was teaching in a certain synagogue. A woman in whom there was a spirit of disease for eighteen years was bent over and unable to stand with a straight posture. Yeshua saw and called to her. He said to her, “Woman, be freed from your disease.” He placed his hands upon her, and instantly she arose and stood upright and praised God. The leader of the synagogue became upset that Yeshua had healed her on Shabbat, so he responded and said to the people, “There are six days on which you may do labor. Come and be healed on them, but not on the day of Shabbat!”

The Master answered and said to him, “Hypocrite! Will not any one of you untie his ox or donkey from the stable on Shabbat and lead him to get a drink? But here we have a daughter of Avraham whom the satan has bound for these eighteen years. Will she not be released from what binds her on the day of Shabbat?

When he said these words, all who were standing against him were ashamed, and all of the people rejoiced about all of the wonders there were performed by him.

Luke 13:10-17 (DHE Gospels)

I suppose you can’t compare the supernatural miracle of healing a woman who had suffered an affliction for eighteen years with simply giving a starving, homeless man a sandwich you are carrying with you, but they both speak of a willingness not only to feel compassion but to actively express it for the benefit of another, even (apparently) flying in the face of devoted Shabbat observance.

Teaching of the TzadikimYeshua (Jesus) was accused by the local synagogue leader of violating the prohibition of working on the Shabbat by healing the disabled woman. From the point of view of the leader of the synagogue, his interpretation of the laws of Shabbos was correct and obviously, based on the reaction of the rest of the people present, that opinion was the majority viewpoint in that stream (and probably all streams) of Judaism in that day.

Even today, while it is permissible in Orthodox Judaism to render medical treatment in the cause of saving a life, routine medical matters (this woman had survived her ailment for eighteen years, so Yeshua could have waited another day before healing her) are attended to on the other six days of the week.

For many Bible readers, this distinction may be too obscure, but if missed, the reader also misses the message of all the Sabbath stories in the Gospels. The essential message is not that Jesus has cancelled the Sabbath or that the rabbinic interpretation of Sabbath is illegitimate. The Sabbath-conflict stories instead communicate that acts of compassion and mercy performed to alleviate human suffering take precedence over the ritual taboo. The miraculous power by which Jesus performs the healings only serves to add God’s endorsement to Jesus’ halachic, legal rationale.

Did Jesus’ disciples break the Sabbath in the grain fields? Yes. But they were justified in doing so because their need took precedence over the Temple service, and the Temple service took precedence over the Sabbath. Therefore Jesus declared them guiltless and told the Pharisees, “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7).

Did the Master break the Sabbath when he healed on the Sabbath day? Yes. Would fixing a car break the Sabbath? Of course it would, and by the same standard so does fixing a human body. Nevertheless, the Master justified doing so because compassion for his fellow man took precedence over the Sabbath.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
“Chapter Seven: At Dinner with the Sages,” pg 61
The Sabbath Breaker: Jesus of Nazareth and The Gospels’ Sabbath Conflicts

It is Lancaster’s opinion that Yeshua did indeed “break the Shabbat” as it is literally understood, and performed one of the types of work or melachah (plural: “melachot”) that is forbidden to do on the Sabbath. But Lancaster believes that the needs and dignity of human beings who are created in the image of God have a higher priority than mechanically performing a list of “dos” and “don’ts”.

I don’t mean to cast Shabbat observance or any performance of the other mitzvot in a negative light, far from it. I do want to point out something about human nature, though.

Ismar SchorschIsmar Schorsch, whose writings I greatly admire and who was the sixth Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) for nineteen years (he retired on June 30, 2006), wrote, on “Shabbat I pay less heed to such heartrending pleas because I don’t have any money with me.” It wasn’t that Schorsch lacked compassion or didn’t care about the dire needs of other people, but the traditional practice on Shabbat is not to handle any form of currency or to engage in any type of commerce. Naturally, he didn’t have any money on him, and neither did his sandwich-carrying companion.

But get this:

The Mishnah divides the landscape into “domains”: the private domains of individual houses, the public domains of streets and markets, and shared areas like alleys and courtyards that are not quite public and not quite private. The prohibition of carrying is violated when one removes an object from one domain to another [M. Shabbat 1:1, 2:1; M. Eruvin passim]. The Mishnah goes even further in eliminating the notion of “burden” from this prohibition. It declares that the prohibition is violated only if the object that has been carried is an object that people in general, or at least its carrier, value or use or keep; if it has no value or if it is too small to be used or if it is not worth keeping, then it does not qualify as an “object” for the purposes of this prohibition. A Torah-fearing Jew would not remove even such a nonobject from one domain to another on Sabbath, but incurs no liability for having done so [M. Shabbat 7:3-8:6, 9:5-10:1].

-Shaye J.D. Cohen
“Chapter 6: Judaean Legal Tradition and Halakhah of the Mishnah,” pg 136
The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature
Edited by Charlotte E. Fonrobert and Martin S. Jaffee

Since it appears a sandwich has value (especially to a hungry man) and is definitely big enough to use (eat), Schorsch’s companion could not be excused for carrying food items from one domain (presumably he made this sandwich before Shabbat and at his home, which is a different domain than the street) to another. Of course, the Mishnah may be more strictly observed by Orthodox Jews than Conservative Jews (Schorsch is affiliated with Conservative Judaism and presumably so are the students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, including the student in question), but I have to wonder.

shabbat walkI have to wonder if both Schorsch and the Seminary student were aware of the prohibition of “carrying,” which was another reason that they both had no money in their possession, since money obviously has value, but they saw a higher value requiring attention. The statement made by Schorsch from which I quoted above, indicates that it was quite common on Broadway to encounter homeless people who would typically ask for spare change or some other form of charity, even on Friday evening. Schorsch saw no way to assist them while observing the Shabbat but the student didn’t let that stop him.

Did the student violate Shabbat by carrying sandwiches from one domain to the next, even for the purpose of committing “a premeditated act of kindness” (Schorsch, pg 443)? Schorsch’s own reaction of pride, not even questioning the apparent violation of performing “work”, seems to answer from his point of view.

We can compare this to the reaction of the synagogue leader and the others attending Shabbat services after hearing Yeshua’s response to their criticism of his healing a non-life threatening disability on Shabbat:

When he said these words, all who were standing against him were ashamed…

Luke 13:17

The people who had initially criticized Yeshua’s act of kindness and compassion on Shabbat felt ashamed when they understood that it is common and permitted to relieve the suffering of another living being on Shabbat, whether a thirsty farm animal or a woman under a debilitating disability. Schorsch felt pride at recalling his student’s “unobtrusive display of forethought and compassion.”

I don’t believe that either Yeshua or the anonymous student violated the Shabbat. I believe they acted in the highest principle of Sabbath observance, even if it seems they “broke” the observance of the literal meaning of the melechot involved in each incident.

“The Sabbath does not ‘do away’ with sadness and sorrow,” writes Pinchas H. Peli in The Jewish Sabbath, “it merely requires that all sadness be ‘tabled’ for one day so that we may not forget that there is also joy and happiness in the world and acquire a more balanced and hopeful picture of life.”

-from “Keeping Sabbath – Ways to Practice”
Practicing Our Faith

“Oneg,” or the traditional meal eaten at the end of Shabbat services at synagogue, literally means “joy”. Regardless of the trials and difficulties we may encounter during the rest of the week, or no matter what else may be troubling us, Shabbat is a time to set all that aside and to live as if the Kingdom of God had already arrived, as if Messiah were already enthroned in Jerusalem, and as if he already reigns over a world filled with peace and the glory of God.

So to alleviate the suffering of even one person or any other living thing is to assist them in some small manner in entering Shabbat and a foretaste of the Kingdom.

MessiahIn any way we think we are obeying the will of God, let’s not forget that there is a higher principle involved that summons the future Messianic Age. What we say, think, and do now, on one level, is temporary and will not last, so we sometimes tend to dismiss this life in anticipating the next. But we must never forget for a single instant, and especially on Shabbat, that kindness, compassion, charity, and raising the level of the dignity of another person, even for a moment, are eternal principles and the loftier and weightier matters of Torah, and they speak more of loving God and loving others (for the two are inseparable) than the matter of committing a “forbidden” act of melachah here or there as the situation arises.

Yeshua rejects all those who do not give food to the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the naked of even “the least” of his “brothers,” but welcomes those who are “blessed of his Father.”

Then the king will say to those standing on his right, “Come, those who are blessed of my Father, and possess the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was traveling, and you took me in; naked, and you covered me; sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came to me.”

The righteous will answer and say, “Our master, when did we see you hungry and sustain you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you traveling and take you in, or naked and cover you? When did we see you sick or in prison and come to you?”

Then the king will answer and say to them, “Amen, I say to you, what you have done for one of these young brothers of mine, you have done for me.”

Matthew 25:34-40

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10 thoughts on “Premeditated Acts of Kindness”

  1. Thank you for posting about the homelessness topic, James.

    I believe that homeless/poor people are sometimes like Yeshua in disguise. Every time I remember having experienced a homeless
    and/or poor person being given a small amount of packaged food or a few dollars from someone they have said “God bless you.”. Sometimes they are so hungry that they open up the food right in front of your eyes and start eating it. I have heard stories from other people who have experienced seeing the same thing.

    I think our feasting would be so much more beautiful during our congregational and home lives if we all could bring a homeless and/or poor person alongside of us to share our meals with us often.

  2. Thanks, Jill. During the festival of sukkot, it’s considered a mitzvah (in this case, a commandment resulting in an act of charity) to invite homeless and other disenfranchised people into your sukkah for a meal. I don’t know how often this happens in Jewish homes in real life, but there is an emphasis in treating the poor and other disadvantaged people with kindness and compassion. This is also a Christian tradition and the church I currently attend maintains an ongoing food drive to which I regularly contribute.

  3. I was reading about how healing in ancient times included compounding medicines and other acts forbidden except to save a life. However, Yeshua didn’t engage in any melacha, as one wouldn’t consider a spoken word melacha.

    One time I came out of a restaurant and a homeless guy asked me for change. I didn’t have any, but offered him my leftovers. He said he didn’t like Chinese food 🙂

  4. I had a similar experience with a homeless guy years ago. I offered him half my lunch but he didn’t like the type of sandwich I had. He even refused the apple.

  5. Homeless people have taste buds, also. They are just like us in that way! There are certain foods we all would probably turn down. You might not believe that there are many of them that won’t eat pork. I see what you both mean though. It might look like they want money verses a good meal.

  6. Regrettably, one may also encounter those who have mental deficiencies or addictions in addition to the problem of their homelessness. I attempted at one time to feed such a one by taking him into a nearby diner to allow him to select whatever meal might please him. He proceeded to act out and make a disturbance that impelled the management to request that we leave (take-out was not an option in this case, and this area did not have fast-food franchises at that time). It became clear that the man was quite deliberately resisting being fed in place of obtaining money (with which, presumably, he would buy alcohol or possibly drugs).

    A more genuine kindness might be investment in facilities that can diagnose individual conditions and provide shelter, food, clothing, or medical or psychiatric care as needed (perhaps even career counseling). A complement to this sort of system would be enforcement against vagrancy and panhandling, such that the weakest members of society are directed to care facilities. This need not be a faceless bureaucracy; individuals may participate in bringing disadvantaged individuals to such facilities as well as making donations of food, clothing, finance, or volunteer time. If “the poor are always with us”, then it would seem only reasonable to plan for their care and rehabilitation, with a strong focus on rehabilitation wherever possible. This sort of system would also go a long way toward “cleaning up the streets” (i.e., a kindness to everyone), but I don’t want to continue here into the issues of crime prevention and criminal rehabilitation or execution that deal with failure to deal with non-criminal habilitation and rehabilitation issues.

  7. I once saw a homeless guy with a sign that said, “Why lie? I want the beer.” I debated whether or not to reward his honesty by giving him some money but decided against it. Not to be cruel, but sometimes it’s better to help the homeless or those in need by donating directly to an organization such as a food bank or homeless shelter or at least you should be willing to take the risk that if you give that person cash, they may use it to do more harm to themselves than good.

  8. I’m sorry to hear about your experiences with the homeless, James, Proclaim Liberty, and Chaya.

    Another person explained to me once how they took a homeless person to a restaurant and the person acted just fine but was thrown out of the restaurant anyway. So, more than likely homeless people have a long history of being thrown out of restaurants and maybe that man didn’t know how to act, or was dealing with some unresolved pain.

    I don’t think the answer is to do away with all or most homeless people by pushing them off only to the shelters and food banks though. I agree that some of them are probably unsafe, just like some non-homeless people are unsafe as well. But not all of them. I believe society has a role to help the homeless in person too.

    I have had mostly good experiences with the homeless, but that could be based on where I’ve been with them or run into them at, or some other factor.

  9. I wouldn’t say it was a bad experience, but rather humorous. There are ministries that help the homeless, and they have training and skills in helping and also directing to proper services. As far as the restaurant, perhaps it would have been better to go to a drive-thru, as it is expected that one be clean, presentable and act reasonably in public space, whether one feels this is prejudicial or not.

  10. Jill, I don’t think anyone here is trying to “demonize” the homeless, but it’s a highly diverse population. Some homeless are mentally ill and either services are unavailable to treat their disorders or, in some cases, they refuse. Other homeless people have specific agendas for their requesting charitable funds on street corners. I agree this shouldn’t curb our desire to offer acts of kindness, but it doesn’t mean we can’t behave prudently, either.

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