Never Seen the Righteous Abandoned or Their Children Lacking Bread?
Rabbi Melanie Aron
Saturday, May 12, 2012
The blessing that we say as Jews before we eat, the motzi, is very short but the Bircat HaMazon, the Grace after Meals, is rather lengthy. In its longest version, familiar to some of us from the Passover Haggadah or from Shabbat meals with more traditional friends and family, it runs a full 6 pages, and takes about 10 minutes to chant aloud. At Camp Newman, our local Union for Reform Judaism summer camp, and in many Reform settings, we sing a version which includes highlights of the Bircat, including a reference to each of its traditional 4 blessings.
The short version that I grew up singing at the Solomon Schechter day school I attended as a young child in Brooklyn, was very similar to what we sing at Camp Newman, except that it had an extra paragraph at the end. We used to sing that closing paragraph very loudly and enthusiastically. The words actually come from the book of Psalms:
“Naar hayiti, vegam zakanti-velo raiti tzadik neezav, vesaro mevakesh lachem. I have been young and have now have grown old, and I have never seen a righteous man abandoned or his children lacking bread”. (Psalm 37:25)
When I got to rabbinical school at the Hebrew Union College, I was surprised to find that the custom there was not to sing these words loudly but rather to whisper them. This was actually not a new innovation but a very old tradition, the reason being, that for most of us, these words were not true.
If you are privileged to live a long life, then it is more than likely that you will see the homeless and the hungry, the righteous suffering, in this and many other ways. Ethan talked about this problem in his Dvar Torah, the problem of theodicy, of profound unfairness, the suffering of the righteous and innocent which we see in our world every day.
This week’s Torah portion for Jews living in Israel and for Reform Jews around the world, is Behar, which is typically part of a two portion set- Behar Bechukotai. Behar, as Ethan told us, deals with the sabbatical year and the jubilee, with laws designed to help the poor and to make society more fair. We are urged to help our kinsmen when they fall on hard times and to create societal structures to protect them when they hit bottom. Bechukotai talks about blessings and curses, about a theology which proclaims that if you do good, good will happen to you, and if you do evil, you will bring on your own suffering. How is it that these two are connected? They seem to have nothing to do with each other.
At the Hebrew Union College, while most of the faculty and students were whispering the last paragraph of the Bircat, the one about never having seen a righteous person suffering, there was one faculty member who persisted in singing it out loud. Was he unaware of the theological issue, I wondered? One day, over lunch with the students, he explained his approach.
These words are not descriptive, he granted us. They don’t tell us how the world is now. They are proscriptive, they are meant to describe how the world should be. Every time we sing them, we should be thinking to ourselves, what am I doing to make these words come true, what am I doing to insure that the righteous do not go hungry, that the aged aren’t abandoned, that the destitute find shelter, clothing and even medical care.
It reminds me of a very powerful story called “Charity” by Hugh Nissenson. He describes a poor immigrant Jewish family at the turn of the century living on the Lower East Side. At that time, and still today in traditional circles, tzedakah boxes had the words “Tzedakah Meysteel Memavet, charity saves from death”, printed on their side. In the story, the family is very poor and the mother of the young child is dying of consumption. The boy is very frightened, until on the way home from shul on Friday night, the father takes in a starving beggar, offering him dinner and a warm place to sleep. When the mother dies anyway, the boy is doubly bereft. What happened to God’s promise, “charity saves from death”. The grieving father lifts his head to explain, Not her, but him.
The word at the end of the Bircat, are not yet true, but we can do our part to make them more true. Charity cannot stave off every anguish, but it can reduce many forms of suffering. We are familiar with the concept that God uses history and nature as God’s agents, but we must extend it to understand that each of us also has the potential to do God’s work. If we walk in God’s statues and keep God’s commandments, we can help bring about the vision of Leviticus’s blessings, of bounty for all and peace in the land.