Posted on | April 20, 2009 | By William Kolbrener | 16 Comments
On Friday night, I heard a story – about a businessman in Baltimore who returned to Judaism late in life. Though he did not have the skills in Torah study of many of his new found peers, he found other ways to express his commitment to Torah and Jewish life – through tzedakah, charity and good deeds. For him and his wife, tzedakah was personal – it became for them what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik describes as a ‘worshipful performance’ – an expression of their personalities in the service of G-d.
But then came Lehman and AIG, and the story that continues on the front page of every paper – that is, those papers not put out of business by the crisis. His portfolio declined forty-five percent; his profits diminished; his expenses, however, were on the rise. The couple hoped to continue giving as they had in previous years, though given their circumstances, they had already fulfilled their obligation for charity – even when defined by the most maximalist measure. So committed was his wife, however – even willing to give up her comfortable home for more modest quarters – that she encouraged her husband to consult a legal authority in Israel about their predicament. The rabbi answered quickly: of course the businessman – now down on his luck – had fulfilled his obligations. But, the rabbi added, if he and his wife were to find a cause which they found truly worthy, then further donations would be meritorious. Thinking through the advice of the sage, the couple determined to adjust their lifestyle – so they would be able to give close to the level they had in previous years.
An inspirational story – though it continues.
Only a few days later, the businessman received a phone call from a Swiss broker – who managed a large portion of his funds. It seems an error had been made – holdings had not been properly cataloged, account statements not properly calculated. The bottom line – the opposite of the Madoff story! – a surplus of funds in the range of several million dollars! Not only did this cover his previous losses, but the newly found income made the couple wealthier than ever before!
A triumphant look from the one telling the story; smiles all around, but when the warm fuzzy feeling dissipated, I thought of another story – that of Abraham, his uncle Haran, and the wicked tyrant Nimrod.
Our sages tell us that when Terach discovered his son’s belief in one G-d, he turned him over to Nimrod, who threw him in a fiery furnace: ‘if your G-d is so powerful,’ Nimrod boasted to Abraham, ‘let him rescue you!’ Standing on the sidelines, Uncle Haran calculated – ‘if Abraham gets torched, then I am with Nimrod; if he survives, I’m with Abraham.’ When Abraham emerged triumphantly from the furnace, Nimrod asked Haran – ‘whose side are you on?’ True to his prepared script, Haran answered – ‘For Abraham!’ And then Nimrod threw Haran into the fire where he was burnt to a crisp.
Haran makes his calculations not on principle, but on cost-benefit. Not because of his faith in G-d, but because of hopes of reward. ‘If Abraham turns out to be father of all the nations of the world, I will be his right-hand man… and if not – thinking like an Israeli politician – I’ll find something to do in Nimrod’s government.’
The message of this story is similar: do a good deed, and get properly compensated. It’s as if I’m saying to G-d: ‘Let’s be business partners… I’ll do my share, the mitzvos; you protect my family from hardship, and if you can throw in some earthly reward (BMW 320i in black please), that will also be fine. So whatever I give to you G-d, I will expect the dividends.’
This is what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik calls the mentality of a religion for children – the pragmatic quid pro quo, the calculation and anticipated receipt of my just returns. But it’s not only childish – it’s dangerous. What happens when G-d isn’t the business partner I expect? Do I break off the business arrangement? After all, childish expectations do yield to disappointment. The facile stories of simple reward – our sages tell us we don’t know the nature of the reward for any given mitzvah – may lead to not just disappointment, but despair. ‘This business arrangement,’ I might think, ‘is not working out the way I had anticipated. Not at all.’ And then what?
The couple from Baltimore did the right thing – an inspiring thing. Even – or especially – without the results. With the coda of wealth and reward – thank G-d that it was, in this case, the outcome – it becomes part of the literature for a religion for children where there is always a happy ending. Though we may hope – and pray – for such endings, our ‘end’ in the moment in which we live is to transform ourselves through mitzvos that bring us close to the divine. So the story of the businessman from Baltimore, without the coda of the guaranteed happy ending, fits in a different and more demanding canon of stories – that of a religion which a fellow blogger calls ‘complex,’ or more simply a religion for adults.
The purveyors of the happy endings – and in our post-holocaust generation there is, strangely, a near cultural obsession with such stories – assume there are no longer any adults in the audience. I’m betting otherwise. Am I wrong?