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A Universal Mitzva

Dear Friends,

One of the 613 mitzvos (precepts) of the Torah is the mitzva to do acts of "tzedakah" - to share our resources with those in need. The Hebrew word "Tzedakah" is derived from the Hebrew word "tzedek" - justice. This word teaches us that the sharing of our resources with those in need is not only an act of love, but also an act of justice. Hashem - the Compassionate One - wants us to realize that the poor and the needy are His children who are "entitled" to our help and concern. The Torah therefore reminds us that the poor person is our brother, as it is written: 

"If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him - including the proselyte or Gentile resident - so that he can live with you" (Leviticus 25:35 - translation of Rashi)

 The Torah calls upon us to "strengthen him."According to Jewish tradition, these words are teaching us that the highest form of tzedakah is to give those in need the means to support themselves, so that they will not have to be dependent on the generosity of others. (Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, Gifts to the Poor 10:7)

From the perspective of Jewish tradition, is tzedakah a mitzva that Gentiles should also fulfill? A 13th century sage, Ramban - also known as Nachmanides - finds a reference to tzedakah and the nations of the world in the following teaching from Proverbs (14:34): "Tzedakah uplifts a nation." He writes: "Tzedakah exalts any individual nation that practices it" (Commentary to Leviticus 17:20). According to Ramban, the classic example of a society which failed to do acts of tzedakah was the city-state of Sodom, which was destroyed by Hashem for their evil deeds during the era of Abraham and Sarah. The story of Sodom appears in the Book of Genesis, and in his commentary on a verse from this section (Genesis 19:5), Ramban points out that the root cause of their destruction is described in the following prophecy of Ezekiel:

"Behold, this was the sin of Sodom, your sister: She and her daughters had pride, surfeit of bread and peaceful serenity, but she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy. And they were haughty, and they committed an abomination before Me, so I removed them in accordance with what I saw." (Ezekiel 16:49,50)

Ramban adds: "The reference (in Genesis 13:13) to their 'being very wicked and sinful towards Hashem exceedingly' is to the fact that they rebelled in their prosperity and persecuted the poor, as Ezekiel states: 'And they were haughty and committed an abomination before Me.' According to our sages, they were notorious for every evil, but their fate was sealed for their persistence in not supporting the poor and the needy. They were continually guilty of this sin, and no nation could be compared to Sodom for cruelty."

Another 13th century sage, Rabbenu Yonah, expresses a similar idea:

"We find concerning the sin of Sodom, that although they sinned with many perverse acts such as robbery, violence, miscarriage of justice, and illicit relations, Scripture attributes their annihilation to their failure to practice tzedakah, as it is stated, "Behold this was the sin of Sodom, your sister...she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy." (Sha'arei Teshuva 3:15).

According to Jewish tradition, there is a universal moral code known as "the Seven Mitzvos of the Children of Noah" which is the spiritual legacy of all humanity. (A copy of Hazon's introduction to the universal code is available upon request.) Tzedakah, however, is not specifically mentioned in this code; thus, why were the inhabitants of Sodom held accountable for their failure to perform acts of tzedakah?  One possible answer can be found in the writings of Rabbi Nissim Gaon, a sage of the 11th century, who wrote in his introduction to the Talmud that human beings in every generation have an obligation to perform any precept of the Torah which is suggested by "reason and the understanding of the heart." Tzedakah can be viewed as a mitzva which is suggested by "the understanding of the heart," and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th century sage, elaborates on this idea:

" Compassion is the feeling of empathy which the pain of one being of itself awakens in another; and the higher and more human the beings are, the more keenly attuned are they to re-echo the note of suffering which, like a voice from heaven, penetrates the heart, bringing to all creatures a proof of their kinship in the universal God. And as for the human being, whose function it is to show respect and love for God's universe and all its creatures, his heart has been created so tender that it feels with the whole organic that if nothing else, the very nature of his heart must teach him that he is required above everything else to feel himself the brother of all beings, and to recognize the claim of all beings to his love and beneficence." (Horeb, chapter 17).

The human heart was created with the capacity to be compassionate; therefore, when the Torah mentions the mitzva of tzedakah in the Book of Deuteronomy (15:7), the verse states: "You shall not harden your heart." We are not to allow selfish thoughts or desires to suppress our innate capacity for compassion. The Sodomites were therefore held accountable for the sin of suppressing this crucial aspect of their nature. 

The human being has this innate capacity for compassion, as the human being was created in the image of the Compassionate One. In addition, just as the Compassionate One nurtures all creatures, so too the human being has the capacity to nurture others. As Rabbi Hirsch taught, our compassion is to awaken within us the recognition that all beings have a claim to our "love and beneficence." In this spirit, the Chofetz Chaim, a sage of the late 19th and early 20th century, writes:

"Scripture records (Genesis 1:27) that 'God created the human being in His image.' The commentators take the statement to refer to His attributes. He gave the human soul the capacity to emulate the attributes of Hashem, the Blessed One - to do good and act with loving-kindness with others, as Scripture states: 'Hashem is good to all...(Psalm 145:9), and "He gives food to all flesh, for His  loving-kindness endures forever" (Psalm 136:25).  The existence of the entire world then depends on this virtue...Hence whoever follows in this path will bear the Divine image on his person;  while whoever refrains from exercising this virtue and questions himself, 'why should I do good to others?' removes himself completely from Hashem, the Blessed One." 
("Loving Kindness" by the Chafetz Chaim, chapter 2) 

Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz, a sage of the early 20th century, applies this teaching to Sodom:

"To deserve the title of 'human being,' a person should consider himself a pipeline to help others...The city of Sodom was destroyed because the inhabitants did not do acts of loving-kindness for others. They were guilty of other major crimes, as well, but had they been kind to one another, they would have nevertheless deserved the title 'adam' - human being. Their complete lack of tzedakah and kindness to others brought in its wake their complete destruction." (Cited in "Consulting the Wise" by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin)

Contemporary societies will also be judged for their lack of compassion for the poor and their failure to perform acts of tzedakah. Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, a 19th century sage, cites a tradition that before the dawn of the messianic age, Hashem will judge the nations of the world for their oppression of the poor, as it is written (Psalm 12:6): "For the oppression of the poor, for the cry of the needy, I will now arise, says Hashem."  ( This teaching is found in the Beis HaLevi on the Haggadah, "This is the Bread of Affliction")

According to Jewish tradition, Hashem judges all human beings on Rosh Hashana - the New Year. The following excerpt from a Rosh Hashana prayer regarding the Divine judgement and the merit of tzedakah is therefore of universal significance:

"All those who came into the world will pass before You like members of the flock. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all living; and You shall apportion the fixed needs of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict...But teshuva (returning to Hashem), prayer, and tzedakah remove the severity of the decree!" (Nesaneh Tokef)

In addition to teshuva and prayer, human beings are to engage in acts of tzedakah during this season of Divine judgement and renewal. Why is tzedakah so important during this season? During these days of teshuva, we pray for life, as we say: "Remember us for life, O Sovereign Who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life - for Your sake, O Living God." If we ask for life for ourselves, then it is only right that we should engage in actions which give life to others.

May the Compassionate One inscribe us in "the Book of Life."

A Good and Sweet Year,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

Hazon -Our Universal Vision 

The "Pious" Parakeet

In the joyful spirit of the approaching holiday of Purim, I am sharing with you the following true story. 

Dear Friends,

I live in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, and I have four parakeets that are temporarily living in my apartment. One of them has become especially "pious", however, before I tell you his particular story, I need to tell you how these parakeets came to me. My friend, Hershel Zvi Chernofsky, was living in another neighborhood of Jerusalem, and this past summer he went to visit family and friends in Canada. He was unable to find someone who would take care of his parakeets when he was away, so I volunteered. Hershel was supposed to return before Rosh Hashana, but due to illness in his family, he had to extend his stay in Montreal. In the meanwhile, the parakeets are with me, and I am doing my best to nurture them.

The oldest parakeet is "Georgie" – the name that Hershel gave him when the parakeet was still a baby. When Georgie was very young, Hershel, who is a teacher of English and skilled with languages, was pleased to discover that Georgie learned how to say, "You're so cute!" Hershel therefore taught him a few other phrases.

A week before Georgie and friends were to move into my apartment, I began to imagine Georgie yelling in his high-pitched voice, "You're so cute!" Is this the message that is to be proclaimed in my holy dwelling? In a humorous spirit, I decided have a "heart-to heart" talk with Hershel. I reminded Hershel that my neighborhood of Bayit Vegan is a very spiritual neighborhood; moreover, almost all its residents are pious people. I therefore requested that Hershel teach Georgie to say some words that would be more appropriate for the neighborhood. Hershel asked, "What do you suggest?" I replied, "Teach him to say, "Good Shabbos!" Hershel promised me that he would try, and he succeeded. Hershel calls me by the nickname, Yossi, and on the day the parakeets moved in, Georgie called out, "Good Shabbos, Yossi!"

Since I have a Master's Degree in Education, I felt that I should continue to teach Georgie to say other spiritual phrases. For example, during the Festival of Succos, I taught him to say, "Chag Samayach" - A Joyous Festival. Some of the other Hebrew and Yiddish phrases that he learned are the following:"simcha" – joy, "l'chayim" - to life, "gevaldig" – great, and "zei gezunt" - be well! Georgie usually says these phrases to his mate, and I notice that she is very impressed by his mastery of human language.

He also learned how to say, "Baruch Hashem" – Blessed is the Compassionate Divine Name. I was especially proud when he began to say, "Learn Torah!" I was once in the middle of preparing a Torah lesson, and feeling very tired, I decided to take a rest. Suddenly, Georgie yelled out, "Learn Torah! Learn Torah!" I immediately felt a resurgence of strength and went back to writing.

Georgie's newest phrase is, "Gan Eden" – The Garden of Eden. Given his growing spiritual vocabulary, I decided that I should make a greater effort to take care of Georgie and the other parakeets with a spiritual consciousness. For our tradition teaches that we should do all our mitzvos – Divine mandates - with the awareness that we are serving the loving and just purpose of our Creator. For example, when I feed the birds before I eat, I remind myself that I am fulfilling the mitzvah to feed one's animals and birds before one sits down to eat.
In addition, before I start to feed the birds, I have the intention that I will be fulfilling at least two other mitzvos of the Torah. My friend Hershel Zvi is happy and relieved that someone is taking care of his birds; thus, when I feed and take care of the birds, I am fulfilling the mitzvah to "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). There is also a mitzvah to "go in His ways" (Deuteronomy 28:9), and this means that we are to emulate the compassionate and nurturing ways of the Creator. When I nurture the birds, I am fulfilling this mitzvah, as it is written, "The Compassionate One is good to all, and His compassion is on all His works" (Psalm 145:9).

There is a special pleasure in having creatures in my home who love to sing; in fact, whenever I play my tapes of spiritual melodies, the birds begin to sing loudly. I also have a daily choir practice with them. For example, I go over to the birds and start to chant, "Baruch Hashem!" The other male, who is younger than Georgie, then bursts out with beautiful chirping and whistles. I call him the "cantor" of the group. And when the other birds decide to join in, it's truly beautiful. With a little more practice, I could take them on a performing tour.

I am grateful for all the pleasure that the birds give me, and I therefore have my feathered friends in mind when I sing the following words from a traditional song which is sung at the Sabbath table:

"Praises shall I prepare morning and evening, to You, O Holy God, Who created all life: holy angels and the children of humankind, beasts of the field, and birds of the sky." (Kah Ribon Olam)

When the Compassionate One created all life, all creatures dwelled in "shalom" - peace and harmony - in the Garden of Eden. This realization helps me to feel a special kinship with Georgie and his friends, for I remember that my ancestor and their ancestor were neighbors in the Garden. I also remember the prophecies which state that human beings and all creatures will once again experience the shalom of the Garden after the arrival of the messianic age. The following prophecy of Isaiah can serve as an example:

"The wolf will live with the sheep, and the leopard will lie down with the kid; and a calf, a lion whelp and a fatling together, and a young child will lead them. A cow and bear will graze and their young will lie down together; and a lion, like cattle, will eat hay. A suckling will play by a viper's hole; and a newly weaned child will stretch his hand towards an adder's lair. They will neither injure nor destroy in all of My sacred mountain; for the earth will be filled with knowledge of the Compassionate One as water covering the sea bed." (Isaiah 11:6-9)

Before the arrival of the messianic age, Georgie and his friends - who were raised in bird cages – would find it difficult to survive if they were returned to the wild, as studies have shown that birds raised in captivity lose some of the instincts and skills that they need in order to be protected from birds of prey and other dangers in the wild. This situation will change, however, with the arrival of the messianic age of shalom, for when the earth will be filled with knowledge of the Compassionate One, creatures will no longer prey on one another, "and a lion, like cattle, will eat hay." The new spiritual consciousness, explains the Malbim, a noted biblical commentator, will affect even the animals. Georgie and his friends will therefore be able to leave their cages and enter into a renewed and elevated world, where no creature will ever harm them.

And just as they will be liberated from the confines of their cages, so too, will we human beings be liberated from the "cages" that confine us, whether they be physical, intellectual, or emotional. For in this new age, our souls will soar high like the birds of the sky, for "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Compassionate One, as water covering the sea bed."

Have a Happy Purim,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

Hazon - Our Universal Vision:

Stories of Kiddush Hashem

Today is Rosh Chodesh Adar 2 - the first day of the Hebrew month of Adar 2. This year is a leap year in the Hebrew calendar, and we therefore have two months of Adar. May we be blessed with a Chodesh Tov - A Good Month. The mailing for today includes three stories which describe how a Torah observant gem merchant, a progressive Jewish journalist, and a group of non-Jewish parents performed acts of kiddush Hashem:

1. Jakob deVries was a gem merchant who lived in Amsterdam in the 18th century.  He had good relations with all his customers and particularly with his main customer, the local Duke. Jakob was a Torah observant Jew, and it was well-known that he could never be induced to do business, or even to talk about business on the Sabbath.

One Sabbath morning Jakob was sitting with his family as he made the morning kiddush, when a ducal herald accompanied by two army sergeants appeared at the door. The herald cried out, "A message from his Grace the Duke for Mijnheer Jakob de Vries!" Jakob read the message and his face grew pale. It requested him politely, but firmly, to appear before the Duke within an hour with a selection of his choicest gems, since the Duke had urgent business to transact. A very large profit for the merchant would be forthcoming.

"My humblest respects to the Duke," said Jakob to the herald. "Tell him that there is nothing I would like more than to oblige him, but he knows that I never do business on the Jewish Sabbath. As soon as the Sabbath is out I shall be glad to do his bidding."

But the Duke would not take no for an answer. Within the hour another delegation arrived, more numerous than the first. "The Duke's business brooks no delay," they said. Jakob again politely refused.

Throughout the day additional messages came from the ducal palace, and they contained the following threat: "Jakob de Vries should know that if he disobeys this command, the Duke will break off all business relations with him and revoke his license to sell jewels in the whole province."
Beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead, but Jakob de Vries stood firm. "Tell the Duke, " he said, "that I am loyal to him, but I owe a higher loyalty to my God."

After the termination of the Sabbath - and Jakob did not curtail any of the ceremonies and songs with which Jews say farewell to the Holy Sabbath - he hastened to the palace, not knowing what to expect there. To his amazement, as soon as he entered the great hall, the Duke arose rose from his throne and clasped him in a warm embrace.

"Thank you, my friend, " said the Duke. "You were great! And what's more, you have added 10,000 guilders to my coffers. You see, I had a guest here today, the Duke of Brabant, and I told him about your loyalty to your Jewish laws. He laughed and said that no Jew could resist making a big profit, and he bet me 10,000 guilders that a combination of monetary incentives and threats would surely break your resolve. I had faith in you and bet 10,000 guilders that you would stand firm. Thank you for living up to my expectations!"

(The above story is cited in "Masterplan" by Rabbi Aryeh Carmell. "Masterplan" discusses how the mitzvos of the Torah form a dynamic and comprehensive system designed to elevate human beings and establish a just and caring society that can serve as a model for all humanity to emulate. It is published by Feldheim, and a review of this book appears on the Hazon website: )

2. The late Paul Cowan was a popular progressive journalist who wrote for the Village Voice. He came from an assimilated Jewish home, but during the 1970's he began to explore his Jewish roots, with the encouragement of his wife, Rachel. He began to learn about the mitzvos, and he also began to study Hebrew. In 1979, the Village Voice sent him to cover the story of the near nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in rural Pennsylvania. The story was big news, as people feared that the nuclear power plant would explode. His wife Rachel went with him, and she was the photographer for the story. They came to the area during the intermediate days of Passover, and in the following excerpt, Paul describes how he and Rachel tried to observe some aspects of Passover:
"In our own lives, Rachel and I had both decided to refrain from eating hametz (leavened food) during Passover. The act of giving up leavening enriched the story of the Exodus by incorporating a daily reminder of it into our lives. We brought our own matzos to rural Pennsylvania, and were careful about the food we ate... As we got to know the people in the area - devout Christians, who were extremely generous about inviting us into their homes - we found that they were glad to help us fulfill our dietary requirements. It turned out they couldn't understand Jews who weren't observant...We might be big-city journalists, employees of an avowedly left-wing newspaper, but we had roots in something that was real to them, the Bible."
(The above excerpt appears in "An Orphan In History" by Paul Cowan. It is published by Bantam Books. In this autobiographical work, Paul Cowan tells the story of his search for his Jewish roots.)

3. During the summer of 1967, when I was 21 years old, I worked in a Head Start program for pre-school children from poor families who lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My role was to assist the social worker in visiting the homes of the children enrolled in the program, and to socialize with their parents when they came to relax in the "parents room." The parents were not Jewish, and they represented most of the ethnic and racial groups who lived in the neighborhood, including Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and Chinese Americans. The administrator and the social worker were secular-oriented Jews, and when they saw my yarmulka, they were somewhat concerned whether I, a Torah observant college student, would be able to relate to the parents. They were pleasantly surprised to see that the parents gravitated towards me and liked to talk with me. They were even more surprised when the parents became more relaxed with me than with them! I knew that one of the reasons why I got along well with the parents was because I had grown up in poor, racially-mixed New York neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, and I therefore felt very much at home with the children and their parents. I soon discovered another reason why the parents gravitated towards me. Most of them were religious people, and they preferred to talk to me, a religious Jew, about their spiritual experiences and struggles than with the secular-oriented Jewish staff.

At the first staff meeting, I was told that I would also accompany the parents on special subsidized trips, which included visits to various restaurants. The staff knew I could not eat at these non-kosher restaurants, and they were worried whether this would interfere with my duties. I reassured them that although I could not eat with the parents, I would sit with them. I also made a mental note to wear a hat instead of my yarmulka when we went to the restaurants, as I did not want to give strangers the impression that an Orthodox Jew was eating in a non-kosher restaurant!

When the first parents' trip was scheduled, the parents met with the staff to decide where they would eat. During the meeting, one of the mothers asked, "What about Yosef? What will he eat when we go to the restaurant?" Other parents also began to express their concern that I would be deprived of a meal. Both I and the staff reassured them that there was no problem, and that I was perfectly happy sitting and talking with them, even if I couldn't eat the food. To the amazement of the other Jewish staff members, all the parents then decided to go to a kosher restaurant so that "Yosef would be able to have a good meal."

Throughout the summer, the parents demonstrated much respect for my religious beliefs and practices. I now realize that their respectful attitude was actually a kiddush Hashem - one which made a positive impression on the other Jewish staff members and caused them to become more aware of their Jewish heritage.

Good Chodesh!

Hazon - Our Universal Vision: