By Rabbi Fredi Cooper
The obvious beneficiary of tzedaka is the needy recipient. The Rambam (the 12th century rabbi and philosopher also know as Maimonides) and others have noted, however, that the giver is also the beneficiary because the gift helps the giver become openhearted. One can learn to feel empathetic by acting empathetic. Furthermore, giving tzedaka can help the giver feel useful and needed.From A Guide to Jewish Practice: Tzedaka By David A. Teutsch, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Press.
In my teaching for the Omer period, I want to broaden this concept past the idea of tzedaka to include also gemilut hasadim. I believe that the Rambam is teaching us that we grow beyond our expectations when we extend our hand to another, to say that we care. Through our caring we can help another and help ourselves. The simple act of being open to opportunities for giving can alter our lives in a manner that is not always clear and straightforward. Once that first step is taken it has a way of being constantly reinforced and can delineate a rich and enduring road for our lives.
It is almost twenty years ago now when I experienced an act of giving that has altered the fabric of my life. That act of giving continues to grow, change and touch me and others. I was a patient in a hospital that was far from my home. My husband had returned to our home city to care for our children and I was alone in this strange city recuperating from surgery. On a Friday morning two women came into my hospital room and delivered Challot and grape juice for Shabbat. As they left my room, I was transported in my thoughts to my childhood home—with the table set for Shabbat and the scent of chicken roasting in my mother's kitchen. This one act took me from the hospital room for the rest of that day. It was a powerful reminder for me of how important my connection was to my Judaism and how I had neglected it or had found it lacking in my adult years. This reaching out—this simple gesture—awakened something for me that truly changed my life.
Since that time, I have carried that image with me of the two women in my hospital room on that day. They brought back Shabbat to me, when I didn't even know that it was missing. More than that, it was one of the many times when I had a sense that I needed to find out more about the role of Judaism and Jewish text in my life. It was one of the many steps that would ultimately lead me to the rabbinate later in my life.
Once I began studying to become a rabbi I wanted to develop a way to bring Shabbat to other patients in the hospital, knowing how important it had been to me. I was able to begin a program in Philadelphia hospitals both through raising money for this initiative and also by convincing leaders of Jewish agencies in the Philadelphia area of the power and importance of reaching out to others in this way. In the years since I began this project, it continues to grow and I continue to hear stories of how important it has been to families to have Shabbat come to them in the hospital. I have been privileged to deliver Challot and grape juice myself and have seen how much this has meant to patients during a difficult time in their lives. I have also been privileged to deliver Challot to young parents who have just welcomed a new life into our world. This gesture has also had a powerful impact in the context of birth. I have also had the opportunity to train volunteers to be the visitors in hospitals on Shabbat and have watched how they have grown in their lives in being a part of this. I continue to receive notes from families in a cancer hospital where I have continued to stay involved in this mitzvah.
It is clear to me that the giving and the receiving have had equal value in my life to be transformative. I continue to get as much from being the giver as I did when I received the gift of Shabbat from the two women so many years ago. I often wish that I could tell them now how they have helped to change my life and how their mitzvah has traveled to another city and continues to effect the lives of so many.
Questions for consideration