The Mishnah Peah, found in our Siddurim in the morning “preliminary service” section begins with the following statement:
“These are the commandments for which no fixed measure is imposed: leaving the corner of the field for the poor, the gift of the firs fruits, the pilgrimage offering at the sanctuary on the three festivals, deeds of loving kindness and the study of the Torah.”
The Mishnah (Shabbat 127a), also found in our Siddurim, adds the following:
“These are the commandments, the fruits of which a person enjoys in this life while the principal endures for all eternity: honoring one’s father and mother, performing deeds of loving kindness, attending the house of study morning and evening, hospitality to wayfarers, visiting the sick, dowering the bride, accompanying the dead to the grave, devotion in prayer, and making peace between individuals; but the study of Torah is equivalent to them all.”
The commentators of the Mishnah (Shabbat 127a) realized that there can be two types of acts of loving -kindness. The first involves giving money to help people buy food and clothing and to give money for such purposes as redemption of captives. The second type of acts of kindness is not financial, rather it refers to physical contributions, those contributions we do with our own body. According to the Mishnah (Shabbat 127a), when one gives of oneself, there is no fixed measure. In fact, there is a fixed measure for monetary contributions, a reasonable contribution being considered one-fifth of one’s income, but there is no limit for our personal physical dedication to acts of loving-kindness.
It is known that rabbinic thought, whether in the Mishnah or in later rabbinic literature, reflected reality, Jewish history if you will. That is to say that during the times of Mishnah (about 200 C.E.), medieval period and pre-modern times there were societies called Hevrat Gemilut Hesed, (society of loving kindness), and hevrat hachnasat orchim (society that visited the sick), that were key components of the Jewish community and synagogues. These societies were the fundamental organisms, the intermediate agencies, through which the Jewish community functioned.
Are we following these traditions today at TBE? How can we re-invigorate the envolment of groups like those described in the Mishnah?
Three elements, in my opinion, are affecting the involvement of Jewish families in the synagogue. The absolute delegation of religious observance to specialists, i.e. clergy, the loss of sacredness of the Jewish calendar and the lack of knowledge that leads to avoidance of the unknown.
One step to improve this situation is to strengthen the relationship that makes TBE our extended family. Joining a congregation shouldn’t mean the right to a piece of the clergy’s time to run a life cycle event. It should rather be a right to join a place where I can find meaningful relationships that are concerned with people. This means involvement in activities where people go. As the Mishnah seems to suggest, all Jews are responsible for each other, and for the quality of that mutual responsibility. We are very much accustomed to acting on our feelings of mutual responsibility for Jews abroad. Shouldn’t we also stress this responsibility in our immediate setting? If this is possible, I am sure we will be able to infuse a “new spirit” into TBE and create the basis for a nice and more relevant environment for everybody, including everybody! We all are a B’nei B’rit, people of the covenant, bound in a covenant governed by the relational qualities of loving hesed (loving kindness) and mutual responsibility, two important concepts born long time ago in our tradition. Let us practice them today!
Rabbi Leonardo Bitran