Guiltily, I admit that sometimes I don’t concentrate on the prayers that I am reciting. Occasionally, however, a phrase that I have repeated for decades captures my attention.
One such phrase (near the beginning of the Amidah—the central prayer in every Jewish service) praises God as one who “gomail chasadim tovim”—performs good deeds of kindness.”
I wondered: “Aren’t all deeds of kindness always completely good?”
An Answer from the Twelfth Century
The Tosaphot, a collection of commentaries from the twelfth century A.C.E., discusses a statement from the sage Rav (Talmud, Shabbat 10B) “He who gives a gift to his friend should let him know (that he gave it.) The Tosaphot explains that this principle applies when the recipient understands that the gift is a token of friendship. On the other hand, a person who gives a gift as charity should not identify him or herself as the source of the gift. The recipient will remember that the gift comes not out of friendship, but because he needs help; he can’t survive on his own. A “deed of kindness” that makes another person unhappy or ashamed cannot be considered as completely “good.”
The Scroll of Esther recounts not only the triumph victory of the Jews over Haman and other Persian enemies, but also their “victory celebration.” Every Purim, we continue a tradition which our ancestors initiated as they —the giving of two kinds of gifts.
(1) Mishloach manot—sending food (such as cake and wine) to friends and relatives. The giver must either identify himself in person or leave a note with the goodies.
In my college days, I distributed Mishloach manot wearing an Abe Lincoln stovepipe hat (only the older people understood the presidential connection.) More recently, a family with seven children decked out in baseball uniforms delivered Mishloach Manot to my Woodmere, New York neighborhood.
(2) “”Matanot l-evyon im”—gifts for the poor. Every Purim, we donate money to a synagogue or charitable organization. The funds are then distributed anonymously to needy individuals. The recipients never know who contributed to their gifts.
My family and I customarily send a “matanah l-evyonim” donation to the Young Israel of Riverdale synagogue where her brother Mordecai Willig is the rabbi. He always reminds us that poor people on the streets of Jerusalem will be enjoying our anonymous contributions.
Two Disquieting Pre-Purim Messages
Last week I received an email which read: “Help make this Purim even more joyful by purchasing Camp —– (for the disabled) Purim cards and sharing your happiness with our hundreds of precious campers and their families. More smiles, More hope.” A second email promoted Purim cards to raise money for disabled children in Israel.
I understand that the organizations that sent these emails need money to operate camps and other programs for the disabled, and that the children will not know who helped them. Nevertheless, the cards (perhaps unintentionally) re-enforce the stereotypes that children with disabilities
- Are sad and need segregated camps to bring them smiles and hope.
- Are automatically receivers and never givers, and
- Are destined to live “separate and not quite equal” lives in Jewish society.
A Dream for the Future
Perhaps as early as Purim one year from now, many more children and adults with disabilities will distribute “Mishloach manot” and “Matanot l’evyonim, gaining recognition as givers, not just recipients of gifts. When all of us with disabilities have the chance to distribute gifts, we will know that our segregation is fast approaching its end.
As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition, boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons, boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, N.Y. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to email him.