Friday, 14 August, 2020 - 5:00 pm

Mark Ginsberg never pays his bills, especially not during this time of recession. Recently his friend saw him bargaining with a supplier.

"Hey, Ginsberg," Goldberg asks him, why are you knocking that man's prices down? You're never going to pay him anyway.

Listen, answers Ginsberg, he is a nice chap. I just want to keep down his losses!

The weekly portion Re'eh states what has become one of the cornerstones of Jewish life:

“If there will be among you a needy person, from one of your brothers in one of your cities… Rather, you shall open your hand to him and give generously. Then because of this the Lord your G-d will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. The Rabbis, sensitive to the truth that each word and expression in the Torah is precise, have wondered what is the meaning of the expression “You shall open your hand to him?” The Torah has already stated clearly, “you shall not harden your heart… you shall lend him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking.” That seems as clear as can be: Give money to the needy. Obviously, in order to give, you got to open your hand!

I want to share with you two answers.

Many people do not close their hearts. In their mind and in their heart they believe in giving, they feel the importance of giving, they tell others to give. But they just can’t open their hand and let go. In the last “stop” the money gets stuck somehow. The buck passes through their mind, it passes through their heart; it even passes through their accountant and secretary. But when it has to pass through their actual hands—that is where the buck stops!

The Torah, so acutely aware of human nature, cautions us: It is not enough to open your heart. It is not enough to want to give. Rather, you need to “open your hands”—just let it go.

But how and why?

Here we come to a deeper interpretation.

There is lovely Midrash, in which the great sage of the second century CE, Rabbi Meir, engages the following observation of Ecclesiastes: “As one came naked from his mother’s womb he will return as he came and will take nothing of his toil with him…so what is the good of his toiling…?

Fascinating: The Midrash examines what is the underlying reason for the contrast between the hands of a newborn baby and that of one who has just died. When a baby is born its hands are tightly clenched.

Whereas the hands of a corpse lay lifelessly wide open. Why?

The Midrash explains that a newborn fools himself into believing that he has the power to conquer the world. It is as if he were saying that he will take hold and seize this world. However, when that individual dies, those same hands lay wide open in acknowledgment of the fact that he has taken absolutely nothing from this world. We die and we can take nothing.

Leo Tolstoy, a famous Russian writer of short stories, has a story titled, "How Much Land Does a Man Need?"

It is a story about a greedy man named Pakhom, who becomes obsessed with owning land. Finally, he is introduced to a family owning enormous quantities of the land who gives him an unusual offer: for a sum of one thousand rubles Pakhom can walk around as large an area as he wants, starting at daybreak, marking his route with a spade along the way. He has all day to cover by foot as much territory as he would like. If he reaches his starting point by sunset that day, the entire area of land his route encloses will be his!

The man is delighted, as he believes that he can cover a great distance and has chanced upon the bargain of a lifetime. At the end of this day, he will finally achieve richness.

The man is excited beyond words. "These idiots," he thinks, "don't even know how much land they will be forfeiting today." His journey begins. He tries to cover as much land as possible, not content with what he already has. He goes on, more and more, and more and more. He begins to run, and run faster and faster, another mile, another mile. In his glittering imagination, he sees all this land belonging to him.

As the sun nearly sets, he realizes his error… He covered so much ground from the starting point, but he has to get back to the starting point. Oy vey, only a few minutes left. He runs back as fast as he can to the waiting family. He never ran so swiftly in his life. He finally arrives at the starting point just as the sunsets. He made it. The family cheers his good fortune, but exhausted from the run, he falls and drops dead.

They bury him in an ordinary grave only five feet long, and that is the land he ends up with: a 5x2 plot of land.

This is the deeper meaning in the words of the verse:

The original Hebrew words (Patoach Tiftach) can be translated as: “For you WILL open your hand.” The Torah is explaining to us not just the technical need to open a hand in order to give charity, but rather it is attempting to inculcate within us a perspective. Do not clench your fist and keep your hands closed, as in the time when you were born. Do not think that if you do not give, you will be safer and securer in our insane world. By owning more and more and more, you will be on top of the game. “Because one day you will open your hand.” One day we all have to leave this world and we take nothing, absolutely nothing. Our hands are left open. What then is the real value of our life? The love and the money we have given to help and inspire others.

In life, the Torah is telling us, you got to give and give and give. Don’t be stingy with your love, your kindness, your wisdom, and your resources. Love people. Embrace souls. Touch hearts. For that is the only real thing that matters in life. Everything else is temporary. Everything else is important but short-lived. What we truly own is that which we share with others. Treasure your relationships far more than your possessions.

One of the greatest Chassidic masters Rabbi Kalonimus Kalman (1889-1943), the Master of Piaseczno. He would say that children at five years old already need a mentor: they need somebody to connect their souls to heaven. So in his Polish city if Piaseczno he founded one of the largest Jewish schools in Poland, gathering around him a kingdom of children. He ran a school with thousands of children, and he was their father, their mother, their best friend. In 1940, Rabbi Klonimus Kalman was deported with his family by the Germans to the Warsaw ghetto. There he wrote a most precious book called "The Holy Fire", Eish Kodesh, which recounted the teachings he gave in the darkness of the ghetto. He buried the book in a milk barrel underground the ghetto. In 1943 He was shot near Lublin.  His entire family too was exterminated. After the war, his manuscript was discovered by a construction worker in Warsaw and was given to the Warsaw Jews. In 1957, someone finally realized what it was; it was sent and published in Israel in 1961. 

When the book Eish Kodesh came out after the war was over, I couldn’t believe its beauty, it so pierced my heart. I asked everyone, “Where are those kids? The precious children who heard these teachings every week in Warsaw? I’d love to speak to them.” I was told that nobody survived.

But one day, a few years ago, I was walking down on the Yarkon, in Tel Aviv. And there I saw a hunchback, he looked so broken and crushed. His face was beautiful, so handsome, but his body was misshapen. He was sweeping the streets. I had a feeling this person was special and so I said, “Shalom, peace unto you.”

He replied to me in the heaviest Polish “Alaichem sholem.” I asked if he was from Poland. And he says, “Yes I’m from Piaseczno.” And I couldn’t believe it—Piaseczno. I asked if he had ever seen the holiest Kalonimus Kalmun, Piaseczno’s master. He said to me, “What do you mean, have I seen him? I was a pupil in his school from the age of five until I was eleven. When I was eleven, I went to Auschwitz. I was so strong they thought I was seventeen. I was whipped and hit and kicked and never healed---that is why I look the way I do now. I have nobody in the world. I’m all alone. My entire family was murdered.” And he kept on sweeping the streets of Tel Aviv.

I said, “My sweetest friend, do you know, my whole life I’ve been waiting to see you, a person who saw the Master of Piaseczno, a person who was one of his children. Please, give me one of his teachings.”

The hunchback glared at me. “Do you think you can be in Auschwitz 3 years and still remember teachings?!”

“Yes, I’m sure of it,” I said. “The Master’s teachings—how could you forget them?”

And so he said, “Well, wait.” He went to the water fountain to wash his hands. He fixed his shirt, put on his jacket, and then said to me one more time, “Do you really want to hear it?”

“I swear to you, I’ll share the teachings all over the world.”

So he began. “I want you to know that there never was such a Shabbat as this one in our childhood town of Piaseczno. We danced, hundreds and maybe thousands of children, and the master was singing a song to greet the holy angels, and at the meal, he would teach between every course. After every teaching this is what the master would say:

Children, remember! The greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor.’”

The hunchback sighed. “You know, my parents are gone, my whole family, no one exists anymore. And so I was in Auschwitz and all alone and I wanted to commit suicide. At the last moment, I could hear my master say, “Kinderlach, children…do somebody else a favor. Do somebody a favor.’”

He looked me directly in the eyes. “Do you know how many favors you can do in Auschwitz at night? People who are lying on the floor crying and nobody even has any strength to listen to their stories anymore. I would walk from one person to the other and ask, ‘Why are you crying?’ and they would tell me about their children, their wives, people they’d never see in this life again. I would hold their hands and cry with them. Then I would walk to the next person. And it would give me strength for another day. 

“When I was at the end again… I’d hear my Rebbe’s voice. I want you to know I’m here in Tel Aviv and I have no one in the world. And I take off my shoes, go down to the beach, I go up to my nose in the ocean, ready to drown, and I can’t help but hear my Rebbe’s voice saying, ‘The greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor. Remember, my precious children, the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor.’”

He stared at me again for a long time and said, “You know how many favors you can do on the streets of the world?”

And he kept on sweeping the street.

It was the end of summer and I had to go back to the States for Rosh Hashana. But when I returned to Tel Aviv, I went searching Yarkon, looking for my holy hunchback. I couldn’t find him. I asked some people, who told me, “Don’t you know? He left the world just after Sukkot.”

 How Many Favors Can You Do In Your Office?

This is the attitude the Torah is asking of us to cultivate. Instead of seeing life as an opportunity to take, make a 180-degree paradigm shift, and see life as an opportunity to give.

What is life? An opportunity to love and to give. And to love and give more.

Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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