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Sir Moses Montefiore of our generation

Friday, 14 August, 2020 - 6:25 am

 Sami Rohr z”l used to say that when he was an industrialist in Bogota in the 1960’s, meshulachim would often come there from Israel to raise money. His friends, all of whom were Holocaust survivors like himself who had rebuilt their lives in Colombia, would complain: “Who are all these rabbis who come here every day to ask for money?”

At this point in the story Sami would smile – he was a Galician Jew who remembered regimes that persecuted Jews by taxing them unfairly: “I used to say to them: I prefer that a hundred rabbis should come here, and not one person from income tax.” In Yiddish it sounds better: “Mir iz lieber hundert rabbonim, vi einer von der steier.

Parashat Re’eh, which we will read tomorrow, is the parasha where the mitzvahs of tzedakah are mentioned, the mitzvahs of giving: ma’aser (tithes), providing for a Jewish slave when he completes his six years of bondage, opening one’s hand and heart to the poor. All of these are discussed at length, and always using a double verb: Aser te’aser (You shall surely tithe), pato’ach tiftach (You shall surely open [your hand]), naton titen, ha’anek ta’anik. It is clear that in this parasha the Torah is asking us repeatedly to open our hearts and hands, and, as Rashi says about naton titen (“You shall surely give”): even one hundred times.

The story I told about Sami Rohr z”l is not just a joke or a witticism. Sami Rohr really behaved that way. I think Sami Rohr was the Sir Moses Montefiore of our generation. Wherever you go in the world, in almost every community his name appears somewhere – on a building, or on a parochet (curtain on the Torah ark), on siddurs and chumashim or on an institute devoted to Torah learning. Because when he learned the psukim “You shall surely open” and “You shall surely give”, he understood them simply: even one hundred times. Literally.

Many people give tzedakah, but not everyone has the merit of being called a ba’al tzedakah.

A ba’al tzedakah is a person whose essence is giving tzedakah. There are those who give tzedakah to things that speak to them. One gives mainly to soup kitchens; another mainly to yeshivas; one likes to give mainly to hospitals, and his fellow gives mainly to organizations that assist people in distress. A ba’al tzedakah gives to everyone. He is simply everywhere.

By the way, one doesn’t have to be a millionaire in order to observe the mitzvahs of “You shall surely open your hand” and “you shall surely give.” These days, people are always asking us to participate in somecrowdfunding or another. Each person has his own personal “favorite”; not every case do we find interesting or touching. But if we remember “You shall surely open your hand” and “You shall surely give”, we will make the effort to participate in the crowdfunding, even when it is not necessarily our favorite charity.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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