Fourteen years ago, a young, slightly familiar-looking rabbi with a long black beard and black suit, obviously not from a religious group in Flagstaff, showed up at my downtown office door.
"Knock, knock...can I come in and talk with you?"
"Sure, come on in! It's good to see you again, Rabbi."
I was quite sure he was here the previous year and had helped put on ritual tefillin that was, at the time, totally foreign to me: leather straps around my arm and head; small black boxes with hand-scrolled prayer-covered parchment inside; and special prayers for the occasion were recited. I was pretty certain this fellow was one of the young men I saw the year before.
Then he said, "I have never been here before."
Surprised, I replied, "All you guys kinda look the same to me."
The young rabbi laughed awkwardly and smiling, still took a seat across from me next to the wood stove.
That was the first day of the next chapter in my life.
I was not looking for the next chapter in my life, not that I knew of, anyway. Today, Rabbi Dovie Shapiro and I are dearest friends and brothers, neither one able to imagine our lives without the other. The following year, Rabbi Dovie invited me to a conference in New York City which was attended by more than four thousand rabbis and supporters from over eighty countries around the world.
In the year between the now famous "knock, knock" and the NYC conference, I had become more familiar with my Judaic roots and traditions. One of those essential aspects I had heard about but had little understanding of was tzedakah, which is charity. But it is way more than charity as I had come to understand it prior to my studies.
The actual translation of tzedakah is righteousness or justice. Charity is not just a nice thing to do, it is the right thing to do. It is an ethical obligation. Giving to people in need is not something extra, it is essential.
So, there I was, sitting in this huge convention center in New York City. Speaking to us from the dais was an older rabbi whose name I can't remember. What I do remember is that he changed my life, forever. I will always, paradoxically, be in debt to that beautiful man.
I don't remember exactly what he was talking about. I only remember one part of his speech — the very last part when he was talking about tzedakah. With an impassioned voice, his arm raised above his head, he spoke these now permanently ingrained words. Exhorting all of us, he said, "Give! Give till it hurts!" He said it at least three times. "Give! Give till it hurts!" Each time with more spirit.
Why these words stuck inside me, not just in my memory, but in how it has impacted my life ever since, I am not exactly sure, but I have got some solid ideas. Wendy and I started giving more charity upon my return to Arizona that fall and have continued on this ancient pathway ever since.
Our lives seemed to immediately improve, in many ways, soon after our first donations were put in the mailbox. The benefits of tzedakah have remained with us ever since, thank G-d.
I write this today, for all of us, in this unparalleled time of anxiety, anger, sadness and too often...depression. Our focus is easily turned inward. Fear can do that to us. Let's make a strong effort to refocus outward. Tzedakah gives us a powerful tool to refocus outward.
For me, "Give till it hurts!" means till I feel it. My donation won't take me down financially but I'll notice it. I won't scream "Ouch" but I will feel my breath tighten for a moment. Then I'll smile and thank that unforgettable rabbi in New York City and Rabbi Dovie Shapiro who knocked on my office door fourteen years ago.
May all of us give till it hurts, whether it be our hard-earned money or our enthusiastic volunteer efforts. Then we shall experience that the giver always receives at least as much, and even more than the recipient.
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