Back in the old country, a notorious miser was castigated by members of his community, for his lack of involvement in charitable endeavors. He was urged to begin inviting the poor to his home. He was even advised of how good the mitzvah would make him feel.
Reluctantly, the next Friday afternoon he gave his son a few coins and told him to buy the cheapest piece of fish. He warned him not to spend more than an amount that would buy the lowest quality fish. He also cautioned him to buy it just before the shop was to close for the Sabbath when the price was sure to be at it's lowest. He was not to worry about freshness or appearance, just size and price. The son did exactly as he was told and brought back an excellent bargain: a large fish, thoroughly rancid.
Pleased with his purchase, the miser went to synagogue that evening and was proud to invite a pauper to his home. For the first time in memory he had a stranger actually eat with him. True to what he had been told, he really did feel wonderful. The beggar didn't. His weak stomach could not take the putrid fish and he became seriously ill.
That Monday, the miser went with his son to visit the ailing beggar in the community ward of the local hospital. When the poor soul died of food poisoning, he proudly attended the funeral. He even paid his respects to the relatives who sat shiva at their hovel.
Upon leaving the home of the mourners, the miser remarked proudly to his son, "Isn't it wonderful that we got involved with this beggar? Look how many mitzvahs we have already performed. And it didn't even cost us more than a few pennies!"
What does it mean for us to do the right thing? Truly, authentically do what is right in the community? I ask this because, so frequently, what is meant to be an act of tzedek becomes an act of ego, or even worse, an act that is truly thoughtless, where the giver didn’t really think about the needs of the recipient. I think, for example, of how often the wrong materials get donated in a crisis, like when communities sent peanut butter to Indonesia after the tsunami, which they fed their cattle. Or how often all of us do what is convenient when it comes to helping others, not necessarily what is right, or right for them. What’s worst is when we’re called upon to confront someone in person about their inappropriate behavior: perhaps they made an off-color joke or chided someone publically in a way that was humiliating. Then we’re on the spot: do we confront them, or let the issue go? And if we do confront them, how?
This week we read parashat Shoftim—the word means ‘judges’—and we focus right in on the most famous words: tzedek, tzedek tirdof: Justice, justice you shall pursue. In Reform Judaism they are probably as important as the shema as biblical texts go. A simple phrase, one we know so well it feels self-evident, but there is so much packed into it. Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that ‘pursue’ means that this requires active engagement, not merely respect for justice but the active, eager pursuit of it. It is not enough to let someone else do it; we have to do it ourselves. Likewise, Simcha Bunem taught that we must pursue justice through just means; two wrongs do not make a right, the ends do not justify the means and, in the case of our miser and pauper, the intention behind our actions is as important as the actions themselves. They can’t be mere mechanical fulfilment of abstract ideas.
All this means, in the work we do, our kavannah, our spiritual directiveness, must meet with our keva, our actions. It means that, when we see a wrong in our midst we actively try to change it; we don’t wait for someone else to rebuke the inappropriate person, we do it ourselves. It means the actions—and ourselves—must be whole.
This is the first Shabbat of the month of Elul, the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah. And while most clergy do not like this month, we are taught that this is a time of favor before God. A time to reflect on how and why we do what we do. Each of us strives to do good; sometimes for the right reasons and in the right way, and sometimes not. But strive we must, that we can be, as Harold Kushner writes: “Know what is good and what is evil, and when you do wrong, realize that that was not the essential you. It was because the challenge of being human is so great that no one gets it right every time. God asks no more of us than that (Harold S. Kushner, How Good Do We Have to Be? p. 180).”
God asks no more of us than that; so let’s pursue justice justly, ego-lessly, inconveniently, eagerly, so that we can reach our essential, and sacred, selves.