Charity and Wealth in Judaism

As God prepares to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, He gives them two important commandments. The first one is to offer up the firstborn of the animals to God. The second is to put the phylacteries on our arms and heads. This latter commandment is known in Hebrew as "Tefillin." Religious Jews wrap two boxes on themselves that contain chapters from the Bible. One is wrapped around the arm, the other is wrapped around the head.

Why were these two commandments given at this particular point in time? What is their relevance to leaving Egypt?

The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. They were now on the cusp of freedom. And yet, even though they were leaving Egyptian slavery, they might not fully achieve freedom! Freedom is more than the lack of a task master beating you. It is a spiritual state as well. These two commandments point the way towards true freedom. How so?

Going back to Genesis, we recall the story of Cain and Abel. Cain brought an offering of "some of his fruits." Abel brought an offering of his firstborn flocks. God accepted Abel's offering and did not accept Cain's. What was the difference between them?

Simply, it was their entire concept of serving God. Abel served God because he understood that through God comes all meaning in life. Cain served God so that God shouldn't smite him. The true servant of God realizes that the lifelong quest to cleave to the Divine provides all meaning and all worth. Every individual has their own unique gifts, and by channeling them to doing God's will we achieve fulfillment.

The pagan servant of God, or gods, believes that divinity must be appeased. We can pursue our own aims, chase our own pots of gold, as long as we give God his due. In more mundane terms, the gods must be bribed. Then they will leave us alone, or even give us good fortune.

That was Cain. He kept the best for himself, and tried to get away with giving some of the rest to God. Abel, on the other hand, got it right. He knew that by giving the best to God, he could properly fulfill his existence in this world. That's why he gave the firstborn of his flocks.

That is what these two commandments signify. The giving of the firstborn shows that true freedom is the pursuit of the divine. Otherwise we become enslaved by our pursuit of worldly wealth, power, glory. One look at celebrity train wrecks will show how empty that is, how enslaving that is.

The tying of the phylacteries on the arm and head symbolizes dedicating our deeds (the box on the arm symbolizes doing things) and our thoughts (the box on the head) to the pursuit of the divine. Otherwise, we become enslaved by our passions and ego demands.

The amazing story of Nathan Strauss illustrates this. Nathan and his brother Isadore were fabulously wealthy, the co-owners of Macy's and Abraham and Strauss. They were brought to Palestine in 1912 by the Jewish community to get their financial support. There were shown all over the country, and hit up for money. Nathan was especially taken with the Jewish settlements, and chose to remain after their appointed day of departure came. Isadore and his wife made their way back to England, and from there as set forth to return to New York.

They never made it. Their ship struck an iceberg in the middle of the night, and despite its being touted as the "unsinkable ship," the Titanic went down with the Strausses aboard. Nathan's fascination with helping the Jews of Palestine literally saved his life. He would give two thirds of his fortune to building up the future state of Israel.

Nathan understood that charity, that pursuing God's will, is what really matters in life. It's not making millions and then giving charity to make it look good or to feel better. It's seeing charity and kindness as the goals of life. That is true freedom, that is true worth.

Why Slavery?

The Israelites were commanded to have a Passover offering, a lamb, on that fateful night of liberation. Part of that command involves their wardrobe while eating the sacrifice. "Your loins shall be girded, your staves in hand and your shoes on your feet." Why specify what they Israelites were to wear?

My teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik, explained the singular historical fact that Jewish liberation never followed the pattern of many other liberation movements. The French Revolution, for example, was followed by a bloodbath of all those who were deemed enemies of the regime. The same happened in many other countries throughout history. When one group rebelled and took control, they usually became equally barbaric to those whom they had just defeated.

Not so the Jewish people. The Israelites were commanded to "love the Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land." On the surface, one would think they should avenge all of the suffering they were put through! Certainly on a natural level, the Israelites should have desired to smash a few Egyptian faces. Nothing of the sort happened. How is that possible?

I believe there were two critical reasons for the Israelites to be enslaved in Egypt. They both relate to God's ultimate purpose for this world -- Tikkun, correcting. Fixing that which is broken takes precedence, in God's hierarchy of priorities, over rewarding that which is already fixed. As they say, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. We are all part of the chain of humanity and human history, and as such, must make sure that the weakest links will still hold under pressure.

God's main tool for fixing the world is none other than the nation of Israel. I believe that's why our history has been what it's been. All of that oppression prepared us to go forth and fix the world. How so?

First of all, I believe we were enslaved in order to impress upon us the urgency of this mission. By experiencing suffering, by experiencing the worst injustice in this world, we become sensitized to the need to rid the world of such things. The people of Israel are always in the forefront of the fight for human rights and human welfare. We simply can't stand suffering, and dedicate ourselves towards its alleviation. Jews are always working to find the cure to the worst diseases, marching for the rights of the oppressed, contributing huge amounts of charity to help the poor, to strengthen education, to fix the world! This sensitivity is a direct outgrowth of our having "been there".

The nation that left Egypt marched forth with a sense of mission. We were headed for Mount Sinai, we were headed to receive God's law and finally understand how to make this world a beautiful place for all those who live in it. But still, why was that not also the case in the French Revolution? Why did those who rebelled for equality and brotherhood become oppressors who denied the equality and brotherhood of others?

This question brings me to the second reason for the Egyptian slavery. It was so that we do not become overly attached to this material world. It was so that we disdain physical things, and elevate spiritual purpose above all else. Egypt was a deeply materialistic society. It was hedonistic, licentious. Wealth and power were the highest attributes one could aspire to.

I believe that the terrible cruelty of the Egyptians made the Israelites reject them and their materialistic culture. One rabbi, a Holocaust survivor, once commented that he expected the Jewish people to forever reject all Western culture after the second world war. It should have been seen as being worthless, if such "high culture" could not prevent the countries that practiced it from becoming barbarians. It would've been expected for the Jews to throw out the German poetry and music that covered over the deep hatred that resided in their souls.

In truth, it is not the culture that was to blame. It was the elevation of that culture above all else. It was the stress put on the pleasures, physical or emotional, of this material world. The Israelites learned to put this world in its place. They learn to keep physical things subservient to spiritual things. When you are a slave, this physical world holds no attractions for you. A piece of bread is the most precious thing in the world to a man who is starving.

Rabbi Soloveichik stresses that there were two elements of liberation at the time of the exodus. First, there was the physical liberation from slavery. If that were all there was, though, we probably would have descended into vengeful behavior. After all, if this world is about feeling good, then we should want to punish those who made us feel bad. That, in and of itself, would probably feel good.

So there was a need for another element of liberation. Spiritual freedom. Spiritual freedom is only possible when we are not enslaved by our physical desires. That is the meaning of the wardrobe requirements of the liberation evening. Girding our loins means subjugating our physical drives to the spiritual goal of reaching Mount Sinai. We did not leave Egypt to feel good. We left Egypt in order to fix the world. That is the highest spiritual goal anyone could set.

In a sense, one could say that without the spiritual liberation, there really was no freedom. Yes, we would be losing the Egyptian taskmaster, but gaining the taskmaster of our own uncontrollable drives. Spiritual liberation, which is only possible through controlling our physical desires and de-emphasizing the material world, is what really set us free.

Thus, we gained two crucial tools for our job of fixing the world. We gained a sensitivity to all human suffering, and we gained an understanding that the spiritual, not the physical, is the key to true freedom. Without both of those elements together, you could not succeed in our mission. With them, we are and we will.

Music and Judaism

Music is very powerful. According to Jewish tradition, as stated by the great Gaon of Vilna, music is the highest form of wisdom, after the Torah itself. And the Torah itself is described as a "song" in the section of Ha'azinu. When the Red sea split, the people sang, and in that song were elevated to highest levels of prophecy.

Yes, music is very powerful indeed. It is an international language, that speaks to the human on the emotional level. Music expresses tension and relief, mystery, holiness, drama, resolution. Music is an absolute requirement in a movie, for it provides the "soundtrack of our lives".

So what music is forbidden? Well, as with anything so powerful, it can be perverted for the bad. Music also accompanies the worst of orgiastic sins. It can lead the thoughts and emotions to lust. Thus, a lot of contemporary music, with its sexual innuendo - and sometimes overt content - is not acceptable to religious Jews.

Songs that urge us to "Come on and do the fill-in-the-blank", when whatever fill-in-the-blank referred to is forbidden, should not be listened to. Period. Despite what Spock says, Harold Robbins steamy novels are not great literature. Music can create a HUGE emotional drive to do something, so we have to be careful that it's for the good.

Fortunately, there is so much good music out there that no sacrifice is necessary. I've heard of an occasional rabbi criticizing classical music, but I can't accept that. He reasoned that military marches advocate warfare and bloodshed, which are not Jewish values. In my opinion, that's an extreme point of view. I doubt someone will go kill someone after listening to Tchaikovsky.

But after listening to some of today's hip-hop stars, I can definitely see murder as a possibility, God forbid. Recall the connection between a certain singer and the Columbine High School killers. Scary. and something to take warning from.

Music is required on Shabbat and festivals. We are to sing special songs for Shabbat, starting with Lecha Dodi and Shalom Aleichem, and continuing through the zemirot. These songs, sung at the meal, are an extension of the Biblical commandment of Kiddush, of sanctifying the day. They should be sung, and thus we fulfill a greater level of mitzva.

Synagogue services require music. In fact, I have an old German prayer book that has printed the traditional melody required in a number of places for some ancient prayers. The cantor's job is to inspire the congregation. Without music, that would be impossible. Even the Torah is read to a singsong melody.

Judaism NEEDS music, of the uplifting quality.

And that is why a lot of so-called Hasidic music is so very wrong. Yes, wrong. Verses from the Torah should not be set to tunes that could be played in a disco. It cheapens them. I've heard too many songs where the words don't even fit, yet the composer insisted on creating some "dance" style pop hit.

If you want to write a pop hit, by all means do so. Write your own lyrics, that are in the same spirit as your pop-dance-whatever melody. Keep it clean, and go for it. Don't take some poor pasuk-verse and twist it into a twisted creation.

Look at Carlebach. His tunes are lively, joyful, and in complete harmony with the words of the verse he chose. That must always be the goal. What is more uplifting than singing the same Carlebach or similar REAL Hasidic tune over and over as you dance with the joy of the festival?

Also, what is more uplifting than Beethoven's Ode to Joy? They are all examples of how important music can be to us. It must be used, not abused. Remember, our Messiah will descend from David, who was the "Sweet Singer of Israel". The more we sing, the better the world!