Wednesday, July 10, 2013

On feeling a profound absence of generosity

[The Nine Days make me terribly grim; I apologize in advance. Please forgive the darkness of these pre-Tisha b'Av musings.]

A rapid series of knocks at the door on a Friday afternoon – I get up from my computer where I am trying to finish preparing a source sheet for a Shabbos shiur, grab the checkbook and walk to the door. But not without a krechtz [sigh] at the untimely intrusion.

A car noses its way in front of me, trying to force its way into the lane, not even bothering with a turn signal – I pause to let him get in front of me. But not without a glare.

I give the tzedakah, I let the car in. I am not Sdom; I do what is right. But the feeling of generosity isn't there, and it scares me. It's only human to sigh and glare, but that doesn't mean it's right or healthy.

People hear about a public figure speaking on a charged topic, and immediately want the dirt on what was said. Who insulted whom, and how strongly? What was the reaction? What will be the political fallout? This is such an unwholesome approach to other people's lives.

I am reminded of a note by Rav Yonasan Eibeschutz in his Yaaros Dvash (drush 10) – the translation here is from one of our avreichim, Adam Frieberg, in this week's Toronto Torah:

This is not to say, Heaven forbid, that each Jew doesn’t love his friend's physical person. If harm were to befall him, or if the government would falsely charge a Jew, all of Israel would be quick to help him, with their lives and resources. We don’t even need to mention saving a life, he will surely redeem his brother. They would completely affix themselves, with their lives and with their resources, day and night, and would not quit. And if one would become sick, all would pray and visit, and any possible help they would not withhold, they would even race three kilometers through sand. If a woman would have difficulty giving birth and suffer pain, would not all of the wealthy, complacent women rise in the darkness of the night, and go to be with her to help! Can there be greater love, brotherhood and friendship than this?! Your portion is meritorious, holy nation, before the holy King!

My experience matches Rabbi Eibeschutz's glowing description of the way we go to great lengths on each other's behalf. However, I still sense a problem in myself, and I suspect I share this with others: A profound absence of generosity. Of love.

One can daven without concentrating;
One can learn Torah without being emotionally attached to the text;
One can observe Shabbos without feeling מעין עולם הבא (that one is thereby connected to the Next World);
And one can visit the sick, bury the dead and give tzedakah to the needy without an inner pull of "I love to help" generosity.
But to me, this last deficiency is potentially even more destructive than the previous three - and if the bliblcal and talmudic emphasis on social relationships is to be trusted, it makes us far less worthy of ultimate redemption and an end to these Tisha b'Av fasts.

I sense that acts of generosity without generous feeling are hard to sustain – they are more likely to fade as excuses present themselves.

I sense that acts of generosity without generous feeling are hard to transmit to our children – our children are more likely to absorb the sigh than the check.

And I sense that generous feeling is necessary for overall religious commitment. People who feel a need to guard their preserves are less likely to open their hearts, homes and wallets in the way that religion demands, whether in their relationship with Gd or in their relationship with others. Children who absorb that mentality are, in my opinion, less likely to find the "derech" attractive.

How, then, do we build generous feeling? Certainly, the point made by the Sefer haChinuch (216) that generous deeds will help inspire generosity of spirit, is a start. Perhaps this is also part of the talmudic statement (Berachos 6b) that the central reward for fasting comes from the tzedakah we give – when we take the food out of our mouths and give it away, that may help inculcate or reinforce generosity of spirit. But I would like more. How can I make myself a more generous person?

5 comments:

  1. Shalom RosenfeldJuly 11, 2013 at 3:01 AM

    They say a young R' Chaim Volozhiner went to the Vilna Gaon, shocked that he was still experiencing difficulties in complete control of his thoughts. And the Gaon told him -- "you're pushing for too much too fast, and you're not getting siyata dishmaya."

    Like the man d'amar that Yosef just obviously said "no" to Potiphar's wife and that's all there was to it, what do we call him? Yosef HaTzadik.

    Like the man d'amar that he came within a fraction of an inch of failing but then caught himself from actually going through with it, what do we call him? Yosef HaTzadik.

    I got annoyed at the guys in yeshiva for whom forgiveness wasn't enough, I had to insist to them it's "b'lev shalem." No actually for now it's more like a working truce and I'll keep myself busy thinking about other things than our past grudges, but give it a while and things can improve from there. (Sort of like boiling the frog, but in a positive way.) That's called being human.

    These are processes that take time; as you wisely said, it's important to have the right attitude so it's communicated to your kids, but at the same time there's the risk of excessive navel-gazing. Our goal isn't enlightened self-perfection for its own sake, our goal is fulfilling the will of G-d. (Cue Kuzari -- or the alienation I heard described by students of a mussar-trained mechanech of yesteryear for whom there seemed to be no pedagogical message whatsoever other than "if it feels good, don't do it.")

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  2. This blog post has been included in Shiloh Musings: Nine Days' Havel Havelim, What to Read Online.  Please visit and of course share and read & share all of the other posts included in this edition.  If you haven't already, you're welcome to join the Havel Havelim jblog community.
    Shabbat Shalom u'Mevorach
    May you and your dear ones enjoy a very blessed and peaceful Shabbat.

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  3. "Certainly, the point made by the Sefer haChinuch (216) that generous deeds will help inspire generosity of spirit, is a start."

    Did you know that this is also the cornerstone of cognitive behavioral therapy? Motivation follows action.

    A teacher of mindfulness meditation would tell you that nobody gets to the point where they never have an ungenerous thought or impulse, and that should not be your goal. The point is what you do with those thoughts and feelings. Can you acknowledge them when they arise and then let them go, with no further engagement, without letting yourself dwell on them and therefore suffer with anger and resentment toward the persons importuning you? Can you let them go without anger directed toward yourself for "failing" by having them, and holding onto that in a way that brings about suffering? Accept what is, and then act in the right way.

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  4. When I lived in Toronto, I used to buy Tzedaka vouchers from Zichron Binyamin. They made it much easier for me to give tzedaka to meshulachim at the door, not only saving the time and cost of writing a cheque, but also my frame of mind, and likely my generosity.

    How so?

    I would buy the amount I needed to meet my maaser commitments. One online credit card transaction, every month or so. That was the more difficult part. Once I did that, and I received the vouchers, to me psychologically, they were no longer my money (I couldn't go out to the supermarket using them!). They were out of my realm, kind of like hekdesh, and my job was only to disburse them as a gabbai tzedaka to deserving recipients.

    At least for me, it minimized the "krechtz", but being human, I was sometimes a bit annoyed when three carloads came within ten minutes of each other!

    PS For chinuch when our kids were young, we used to give them the cheque to give to the meshulach along with a glass of water.

    Michael Mirsky

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  5. Shalom-
    Maybe they expressed a desire for mechilah b'lev shalem because they wanted you to know they were sincere, and not asking pro forma?

    Batya-
    Thank you.

    bratschegirl-
    Thanks; yes, I am a little familiar with CBT, on a lay level.
    Re: eliminating feelings - It reminds me of the debate regarding the 10th of the Ten Commandments, not to covet. Some commentators say that it is possible to eliminate coveting, while others take an approach similar to yours here.

    Michael-
    Indeed, I do use the Zichron Binyomin scrip, at shul; I don't normally carry cash, so this is perfect.
    For the door, though, I hate to say it but the krechtz is more about the disturbance than it is about the money...

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