It was a cold winter, all over the world. It was the year 1991, and it was the time of the great Gulf War. Scud missiles were falling upon towns and cities throughout the State of Israel. To say that times were tense would indeed be an understatement.
The city of Baltimore had a sister city relationship with Odessa, in the former Soviet Union. The communist regime had just fallen, and travel to places like Odessa was becoming more practical. The Jewish community of Baltimore had begun to send representatives to assist the Jews of Odessa in various ways. Every six months or so, they would assign a different rabbi to travel to Odessa to ascertain the needs of the Jewish community there. That winter, it was my turn as a local Baltimore congregational rabbi to visit Odessa. It was a tense time for such a visit, and my family and friends urged me not to go.
However, I did go and had one of the most adventurous experiences in my life. My companion and I were stranded in the Moscow airport and could not continue on to Odessa, because the Russian Navy was on maneuvers in anticipation of the spreading of the Gulf War – and we were considered potential spies. We spent a frigid Shabbat in Moscow, eventually obtained the credentials to gain access to Odessa, and spent about ten days there.
I had a busy and rewarding time there, especially because of my visit to the one synagogue that was permitted to function throughout the communist era. I remember the synagogue well, and I recall the fact that the prayer services were held in a basement room and not in the still beautiful and quite a large sanctuary, because the community could not afford to heat the larger facility.
About twenty men and three or four women gathered in that basement shul every morning. They had Torah scrolls and read from them. Many individuals came by for a moment or two to light memorial candles. There were even siddurim and chumashim. But something was missing, and for a while I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.
Suddenly, it dawned upon me that there were no pushkas (tzedakah boxes) and no collection of tzedakah (charity) whatsoever. Tzedakah is an integral part of the Jewish prayer service, and no synagogue that I am familiar with, whatever its orientation, lacks a tzedekah box in which to at least put in a few pennies.
It was at that moment that I began to fully comprehend the effects of seventy years of communist domination upon the religious psyche of the Jews who lived under Soviet regime and tyranny. The deep-rooted custom of giving charity daily had been uprooted. The profound compassion, which has characterized the Jewish people throughout the ages, had been purged from the very souls of the victims of Communism.
I reflect on this important personal observation when this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Terumah, comes around. For although we have examples of charity and benevolence earlier in the Torah, this week we read for the first time about the entire Jewish community and its response to a call, an appeal, for contributions.
In Terumah, the Jewish people begin to construct the Mishkan, the Sanctuary. In a sense, it is the first synagogue in our history. It is certainly the first time that we are summoned to contribute, each and every one of us, to a community-wide project. The Jewish people do respond, and respond generously, with all their hearts, and with whatever they have available, to the call for contributions to the Sanctuary. There is no record of anyone shirking this responsibility.
Our Torah portion begins with the command of the Almighty to Moses that he speak to the Jewish people and “have them take for Me a gift from every person whose heart moves him to give.” (Exodus 25:2). Commentaries throughout the ages find it remarkable that we are asked to take, not give, a gift, establishing the basic teaching that he who gives takes a great deal in the process, that giving is a reward and not a deprivation. That fundamental lesson was expunged from the minds and hearts of the Jews of Odessa under the duress of a mere seventy years of communist oppression.
I have been reading a great deal about the science of genetics and its fascinating recent discoveries. Among these discoveries is the finding that many traits that we ordinarily think are products of our education and experience are ultimately rooted in heredity, in our genes. One of those traits is altruism, the tendency to care about others and to act benevolently toward them.
This scientific finding is, in a sense, consistent with the Talmudic teaching that three personality traits are part of the definition of the Jew, hardwired into our very nature: compassion, the capacity to feel shame, and generosity.
The Jews I met during those wintry days on the shores of the Black Sea have the same genetic composition as the alms-giving Jews I see every morning in New York, Baltimore, and Jerusalem. They share a common heritage and heredity with all other Jews. They, too, possessed the gene for altruism, if in fact such a gene exists.
But I am convinced that the power of our social experiences is sufficient enough to overwhelm the innate power of our inherited traits. The indoctrination of seventy years of a culture which taught that one has no private property, no ownership, no say over giving or taking, but that everything belongs to the commune, was sufficient to undermine centuries of teachings and practices of an entirely different ethic. For the Jewish ethic of charity teaches that we are entitled to private property that we come by through honest effort and legitimate toil. The Jewish ethic of charity teaches, however, that we are accountable to take some of that legitimately earned private property and give it on to those less fortunate than we are or to ward the needs of the larger collective, the tzibbur.
There are many ways to understand Jewish history, many perspectives from which to view our origins and our ability to have survived the vicissitudes we have encountered over hundreds of years. We can understand our history in terms of our persecutions, in terms of our heroic leaders, in terms of our migrations to every part of the globe.
But I maintain that the way to understand Jewish history is through the recognition of the power of the mitzvah of tzedakah, a mitzvah that we have all faithfully kept whether we observed other mitzvot or not. We have had the amazing ability to recognize our obligation as individuals to the greater community. We have always demonstrated our compassion for the welfare of the poor, of the sick, of the elderly. Jewish history can be understood in terms of our successes in the area of charity.
The old synagogue of Odessa, as I am told by those who have visited there more recently, now has a tzedakah box. Indeed, it has more than one. The Jews there are more than generous in their giving. The lessons of Communism have been undone. The Jewish tradition of “taking gifts” has been restored.
That is the way I choose to understand the major theme of Jewish history; compassion for each other, generosity, charity, and altruism. Sometimes, for brief periods, we may lose our focus. But we are quick to regain it.