Tag Archives: Maimonides

Condolences

by Rita Plush (New York, NY)

People have surprised me since my son died—and not always in a good way. Some of those I thought would be there with a note, a call, a “How’re you doing?” have fallen by the wayside. Yet others I hardly knew have reached out in a most caring way. One such person called out, “Rita?” as I was leaving the synagogue one Saturday. 

Never having spoken, I knew this man only by sight. And name, if I could ever recall it.

He told me he had read an article I wrote about my son’s death (such a terrible and final word) when I had volunteered as a phone friend to an elderly shut-in as a way of reaching out to someone instead of wallowing in my sorrow. The man offered his condolences. But I sensed in his manner, in his almost hesitant way of speaking, that there might be more on his mind. I waited a beat and he asked if I had a minute, or did I have to get going? I said I had time.  

He shared that his father had died when he was five and a half, and his mother when he was 21. 

“Everyone has their own grief,” I said. “That must have been very difficult for you.” 

I wondered if this was going to be one of those conversations—if you can call it that—where people insist their grief is just like yours, or tell you about someone who has it worse than you (no one has it worse when you lose a child!). Or what you should be doing to get out of your funk.

But then, as if not to take anything away from my suffering, he said, “Losing a child is the greatest loss of all.” He was glad I had come to services and not stayed home brooding, grieving alone. It was important to get out, he said. To be with others, to socialize. “It’s key in the healing process.”

It’s also key in Jewish tradition to perform acts of kindness. The 12th-century sage Moses Maimonides wrote that by comforting mourners you fulfill the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. My neighbor was doing just that. 

“I hope you don’t think I’m preaching or telling you what to do,” he said. “I’m just passing on what worked for me.” 

“Not at all,” I said, taken with his compassion.  

There had been mentors, he said: a neighbor, an uncle, later on teachers, role models who shaped him and became important in his life. A job well done, I thought, considering how he had sought me out, a stranger, to comfort. 

We stood there talking by the exit door but I don’t recall seeing anyone come or go, so absorbed I was in our exchange. And though he spoke more than I, it wasn’t a me, me, me assault. An us talk is what it was. One sufferer (he) trying to make another (me), feel better in the most sincere way. 

How kind. How lovely. How a five-minute conversation, if it was that long, cut to the heart of things. 

“You’re Sam, right?” 

He nodded.  

“Thank you, Sam.” 

He reached out his hand to me. I could feel the slight damp. This had not been an easy talk for him. Then gently, almost shyly, as if the gesture might be too familiar, he drew me in. It did not occur to me then how much I disliked being touched by strange men. Perhaps because it was I who was the stranger, and he had welcomed me, as the Torah says one should. So that when he brought me closer and his cheek tapped mine, it seemed the most natural thing in the world. A complete understanding of what had passed between us.

Rita Plush is the author of the novels Lily Steps Out and Feminine Products, and the short story collection Alterations. She is the book reviewer for Fire Island News and teaches memoir at Queensborough Community College and the Fire Island School, Continuing Ed. Her stories and essays have been published in The Alaska Quarterly Review, MacGuffin, The Iconoclast, Art Times, The Sun, The Jewish Writing Project, The Jewish Literary Journal, Down in the Dirt, Potato Soup Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, Backchannels, LochRaven, Kveller, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Broadkill Review, Avalon Literary Review, Jewish Week, and The Best of Potato Soup 2020. 

If you’d like to read more about Rita and her work, visit her website: https://ritaplush.com

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Anne Watches Me

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

Anne Frank and the Marranos of the
Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam
would not be proud of me as I walk, with cane,
a second day in this canal-laced capital.
Even surrounded by rich Jewish tradition,
located in the center of town,
I feel tangential to the teachings of
Spinoza and Maimonides.
What will make me feel more Jewish?
I have broken too many rules,
avoided too many rites, to lay claim to
being an active participant in my own religion.
And yet,
I am my father’s son,
he who escaped the Holocaust,
who suffered survivor’s guilt,
who nevertheless passed his heritage on to me.
I think of him, and all Jews, those who perished,
those who survived, as I slowly climb the stairs
in the Anne Frank House in the heart of a city that
has remembered and respected its Jewish history.
Ascending those stairs to the “Secret Annex,”
I can hear Anne’s footsteps behind me,
asking questions for which there are no answers:
Why me? Why us? Why now? –-
questions that echo both past and present
as tyrants then and now seek to control the world.
Anne, I feel your strength and bravery
wandering the rooms of your abbreviated adolescence
as a renewed Jew here in the old city of Amsterdam.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

 

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Tzedekah: The Gift of Giving

By Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson (Bala Cynwyd, PA)

Two strong memories of giving are still vivid in my mind’s eye. The first is my father sitting at the dining room table at the end of the year and making out $1.00 checks to each of his favorite charities. This was the 1950s when $1.00 meant something. And since he was a hard-working owner of a gas station and garage, supporting five children and a wife, $1.00 per charity was all he could afford. The other memory is my mother working as a volunteer for our synagogue and packing our one-car garage with other people’s stuff, much to my father’s chagrin, to be saved for the annual rummage sale, the money collected going for needy causes. The garage was always stuffed with stuff!

Both my parents’ actions could be labeled under the Hebrew word tzedakah, an obligation to give to those less fortunate than ourselves. Some also define this word as charity, but the meaning of tzedakah goes beyond charity, and for me, is linked with another Jewish tradition, tikkun olam, which means repair of the world. Helping others is also considered a “mitzvah,” a good deed, all of which dovetails into the whole concept of compassion for others through giving.

I grew up with the idea of tzedakah, and as an adult, continued to emulate my parents, who were following Judaic traditions. (This idea of giving can be found in other religions and belief systems. Jews don’t have a monopoly on this concept.) Then, a couple of years ago, I was introduced to Maimonides’ Eight Degrees of Charity, also known as Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity. Maimonides was a well-known and revered 18th century Jewish philosopher, astronomer, Torah scholar, and physician whose influence Jews still feel today. This ladder was a revelation to me, and the brief description below may give you, as it has me, new thoughts about giving in the future. (I have used several sources, each of which had some variances in language or interpretation.)

  • The lowest rung on this hypothetical ladder is when one gives help or money unwillingly, or gives a small donation grudgingly after being asked.
  • The next-to-the last rung on the ladder is a direct donation, but smaller than s/he is able to give, but given with a smile, after being asked.
  • The next rung up the ladder is a direct donation of sufficient size after being asked or only when asked by the poor.
  • The rung fourth from the bottom (now halfway) is giving a direct donation to the needy, with one another’s knowledge of the giver and the receiver, and without being asked.
  • The fifth rung from the bottom (or third one down) is charity in which the giver knows not the receiver, but the person receiving help does know the giver and may feel indebted.
  • The next rung, directly under the top rung, is when a donation is made anonymously to a charity fund that benefits the poor and the person receiving the help does not know to whom s/he is indebted.
  • The top rung of Maimonides’ ladder is the highest rung of tzedakah. This is when money is donated to prevent a person from becoming poor and helps this person (or persons) to become self-sufficient. This could be in the form of a loan or a job. It is the highest form of charity because it prevents poverty.

With this new information, I am much more aware of how and why I am giving. The next time I am ready to contribute, I want to keep in mind these eight levels of tzedakah and give anonymously, without expecting recognition. In fact, if I can afford to give, then I feel it is a privilege as much as an obligation to help another more needy than myself. I believe that this top rung of the ladder is probably the greatest gift you can give to another, as well as a gift to yourself.

How you give is as important as what you give. If you make wise choices from your heart, I can think of no better gift to yourself and to those in need at this time of year and throughout the next year. Give anonymously with joy and reap its benefits all year long!

(Note: Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity is from Mishneh Torah: Hilcot Matnot Aniyim 10:7-12.)

Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson is a freelance writer and author of four cookbooks, a children’s coloring book, a computer manual, and a children’s (fiction) book based on her ancestors’ trek from Russia to Austria-Hungary (and eventually to America.) She lives in Bala Cynwyd, PA, and has a health-oriented website, www.menupause.info  for older women.

This essay is reprinted with the author’s permission. It appeared originally in Women’s Voices for Change (www.womensvoicesforchange.org).

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Mazel

by Brenner Glickman (Sarasota, FL)

Does an animal have a soul?

It’s a question that Maimonides explores in his commentary on the Torah’s commandment to let a mother bird go free when taking her fledglings or eggs.

Maimonides suggests that the mother bird is like a human mother–capable of care and love– and he teaches that the essence of this commandment is mercy… mercy for the mother and recognition of her feelings.

“There is no difference in this case between the pain of people and the pain of other living things,” he writes.

In other words, we cannot destroy her young in her presence because it would be too hurtful for her to witness.  We must set her free.  She is like us.

Still, this question–does an animal have a soul?–haunts me because of something personal in my life right now.

At the beginning of this summer, our dog, Mazel, received a devastating diagnosis.

Normally, when we come home, Mazel gives us such a greeting, I cannot even tell you.  He jumps, he yelps, he licks, and just shows us in every way how happy he is to see us.

But one evening in June we came home and there was no greeting.

We found Mazel lying on the floor unable to get up.

We took him to the animal ER.  After a few tests, the vet told us what we most feared.  Mazel was filled with cancerous tumors and suffered from massive internal bleeding.  There was nothing we could do.

The doctor told us to take him home and spend his last few hours showering him with love.

Mazel was our dog for ten years, our first child, if you will.  We picked him out at the pound and gave him a home and a life and love.  And he returned the love every day and with every lick.

When he was still a puppy, he comforted me when my grandmother was dying.  I will remember it forever.

I was sitting on the couch in the living room and I started to cry.  Mazel walked right over and sat at attention right in front of me.  He looked right into my eyes, and then he tilted his head to the side, just like so.  And then he jumped on the couch and nuzzled me.

The thing is–Mazel was not allowed on the couch.  He knew not to jump on the couch.  He also knew that at that moment he was supposed to jump on the couch.

We started to make plans for Mazel’s burial.  We were conflicted.  We wanted to bury him whole, in keeping with Jewish tradition.  But we decided to cremate him instead, so we could bury his urn on my family’s island in Maine.  It was his favorite place in the world, and we were planning on going in August.

And then something happened.  Mazel revived.  His bleeding stopped.  He started to feel better and walk around.  After a few days, it was like he was himself again.

We were delighted beyond words.  We knew it wouldn’t last, but we were so grateful for every moment and every day we had with him.  We hugged him and kissed him every chance we got.

And he lived all of June.

And he lived all of July.

And then, on August 2nd, he came with us to Maine like he did every summer.

And he had a ball in Maine.

And then, one evening, he got still again, and, a few hours later, he died.

He had made it to Maine, where we were able to bury him in the manner we had wanted, in the place that he liked best.

My brother had just lost his dog a few months earlier.

He said to me, “They give you so much love, and they don’t ask for anything.”

And I thought, that is so wrong! Mazel asked for stuff all the time.  He asked for food, he asked to go out, he asked to come back in.

But that is not what my brother meant.

They ask for so little from us, and they give us so much.

We miss him so much.  Our house is so empty without him.  We will get another dog soon, but not just yet.  We need to mourn for this one.

My wife imagines that when our time comes and we go to heaven, Mazel will be waiting there for us and give us a great greeting.  I like that a lot.  I like that a whole lot.

I am so proud that we come from a tradition which recognizes that animals are precious and that they have, as Maimonides suggests, a soul capable of so much love.

Brenner Glickman is rabbi of Temple Emanu-el in Sarasota, FL, where he and his family have adopted a new dog, “Jerry” (also known as Jerusalem). You can visit Rabbi Glickman’s  blog at http://www.jlive.org/profiles/blog/list?user=3o0apsblovluy

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