Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Becoming a Maskil

A few weeks ago, one of the finest dentists in Yerushalayim, a man who, despite his busy practice, learns many hours a day , asked me if I was interested in doing a hesed. He went on to tell me that he has a patient, an elderly man, near 90, who, because of age related physical challenges has little opportunity to get out from his home. Yet the man loves to learn and would so desire to have someone come to his home and learn with him once or twice a week. My friend, the dentist, asked me if I might be interested.

To be candid, I hesitated at first. I have a pretty full learning schedule. And this hesed was not a one-timer. It required a commitment, and hopefully for the man, for a long time. I told him I would think on it and let him know. On reflection, I realized what could be a greater mitzvah than this, and I agreed to learn with Zevulun.

Our first meeting was this week. I met a man much compromised physically. He has breathing difficulties and much trouble walking. Zevulun told me he is nearly always in pain. He sat slumped in his chair mindlessly reading a paper. Though married, he has a Phillipina ozeret always with him. Bright and a professional, it seems it has not been easy for Zevulun to make a life for himself when so compromised. He receives so much from others. Yet, at this stage of life, he has little opportunity to give. Where does one find meaning and dignity when so much has been taken away?

Zevulun never went to Yeshiva. Yet he knows how to learn. We decided to learn Gemara Sanhedrin. Its the mesechta we are learning in the Daf Hayomi. As we began to learn I witnessed what appeared to be a techiyat hameitim, a resurrection of the dead. Zevulun became animated and empowered. I thought I would lead, but no, he chose to read the Gemara and later the Rashi. He asked me to get the Kehati he has on one of his book shelves to amplify the meaning of the mishna. And then he got up himself to find his set of mishnayot with the Bartenura. When we ended our learning he said to me, "So what level of leaning am I on? Would you say I was intermediate". I told him, "Zevulun you learn wonderfully" and I meant it. He said, "Good, I will tell my wife".

As I was leaving he got his check book out and asked me how much he owed me. I said, "Owed me? It was a pleasure to learn with you. This is not about money!" And I meant that too! We set up our appointment for the next week.

I cannot begin to describe the zechut I felt I had in learning with Zevulun. I did not teach him! It was not a job! For that hour we were each other's chavruta. In those moments he felt empowered. His life had worth. He forgot his pain. He had a place in the world as a contributor, not just as a recipient of the kindnesses of others. He does not need in his life one more person doing him a favor. He needed to feel like he was vital and sharing again in the world of learning he loved.

I thought to myself where do we find this idea of hesed in the Torah. Its not the traditional sense of tzedaka. I did not give alms to the poor. Yet who is more poor than the one who has lost his dignity, who has no place in the world, who feels impoverished of meaning and purpose.

I believe the answer may be found in the Parsha of this week, that of B'har. There the Torah tells us "Key yamuch achecha umata yado emach, vehechezakata bo, ger v'toshav v'chai acheycha emach" "If your brother becomes impoverished, and his means falter before you, you shall strengthen him, whether he be convert or resident, so he can live with you."
Rashi and all the commentaries point out that the challenge we are given here is to support a person in need even prior to their financial collapse, to help them so that they don't fall into abject poverty. Give the one in crisis a loan, or a job. Help them while they still have dignity and don't yet have to rely on charity.

We know the Rambam considers the highest level of tzedaka to assist one so s/he can help him/herself and not become dependent on others. Its not always about giving money. On the contrary, the best way of caring is helping without causing the other to feel indebted to us or shamed in the process.

Its this pasuk, the verse which call us on to maintain the dignity of another wherever possible, and to give more than money, indeed to strengthen the other with whatever means available to us, that seems to speak to the mitzvah of my learning with Zevulun. Yes, its true Zevulun was not struggling with financial losses. Yet his losses were deeper and in many ways more severe. He lost his mobility. He lost his seat at the minyan in shule. He lost his daily shiurim. He lost the simple gift of being free of pain. He lost the opportunity to give to others on a regular basis. He lost his sense of being someone.

In the Psalms David writes "Ashrai maskil el dal, b'yom raah y'malteihu Hashem" . The sages understood the verse to mean, "fortunate is the person who is maskil with the depleted". Maskil means to understand deeply. The sages say, David is referring to one who sees the unique situation afflicting the other in need and responds out of his/her keen sensitivity. About that person the verse goes on to say, "in a time of evil Hashem will spare him", because he indeed cared with wisdom and sensitivity to the plight of others.

David is challenging us to do more than take a shekel out of our pocket for the beggar. He invites us to do more than see a person's losses and needs in terms of money. The maskil does not wait until he is asked for help and the crisis is full blown.
No, the maskil sees the other and responds to them as persons. S/he acts with sensitivity to their kavod, dignity. S/he feels for them and their circumstances. S/he intervenes with the aim to restore the other to their place in life and society.

It is this person, this maskil, who has a special blessing from Hashem and who indeed will be saved should there come a day of evil.

I think to myself, how many Zevulun's are our there for me to help if I become a maskil. How many people do you know who have losses that are the ravages of life and the aging process.
How many people could we reach out to and restore their dignity, give their life new purpose, just by making them a chavruta or a friend.

Everything I know suggests the need is great. True, these needy are not like the beggars. They don't ask for help. Yet why not be a maskil. Why not see the hurt and suffering of the elderly and homebound. And indeed why not respond!

The reward we are promised is greater than any check Zevulun could have written me. And the satisfaction of doing the the mitzvah and seeing its impact is priceless!

Shabbat Shalom

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