We are All in the Same Boat – But What Is It’s Name?
One of my favourite stories to tell at Tot Shabbat is about us all being in the same boat. There’s more to the story, but here is the outline:
The whole community is out for a cruise in a large boat. As we are sitting in this shared vessel, one of the passengers starts to reach into their bag, takes out a drill, and begins to drill underneath their seat. “What are you doing?” ask the other passengers. “Oh.. just drilling.” Sure of themselves, they reply, “You can’t do that!” The answer is calm, “I can – it’s my seat, I paid for this seat and I am just drilling under my seat, it doesn’t’ affect you. I am just making a little hole where I want one, under my seat.” With a bit more panic, “But what you do affects all of us!” Looking up from his slow and steady work, “Oh really?” As a light bulb turns on, “Yes – if you have a hole in your boat, we all have a hole in our boat, because, we are all in the same boat!”
Telling this story at the start of this crisis, I said that we all need to stay inside, we all need to stay safe because we are all in the same boat. But what I didn’t share with you, is that the name on the side of the boat.
I’ve heard different reports – some say that the name is Noah’s ark and others say that the name of the boat is the Titanic.
We’ll come back to that in a minute. First, I want to tell you a story from the Talmud about Rabbi Judah haNasi.
Dr. Alyssa Gray in a recent lecture for our rabbinical school, HUC-JIR presented a contrast of a few Talmudic stories. Stories from our people in the days of formulating the Mishneh, and then later Talmudic times, that tell us what is the way that we should be doing righteous giving. This is well before Maimonides’s Ladder of Giving. She presents for us an interesting contrast about different ideas of tzedakah and righteousness in our world. These stories that I am going to share with you today are both from a section in Baba Batra in the Talmud, the longest section we have in the Talmud on tzedakah. One begins that section, the other one ends that section.
These are bookends which we think are put together to teach us and instruct us about the differences between the two stories:
It was a time of hardship, in most of these stories, a time of drought, a time when rain wasn’t coming down from the heavens, so there is not enough food for people to eat to survive. So Rabbi Yehudah haNasi opens up his grain stores to his colleagues, inviting in those worthy to come in and share of his grain and they do, appreciatively, thankfully. As he is walking around his grain stores, he sees Yonatan Ben Amram come into the granary. Rabbi haNasi looks at him and doesn’t recognize him. He walks up to him and asks him, “My son, have you read? Have you repeated and studied?” What he is really asking is “Are you one of us? Are you a Torah scholar? Have you read?” Yonatan ben Amram replies, “No.” “So why,” Rabbi haNasi asks, “should I sustain you?” “Sustain me,” Yonatan ben Amram answers, “like you would a dog or a raven are fed.” Possibly what he meant by this is “sustain me like you would any living creature just because I am a creature of God, I am alive. Give me food to eat not because I am extra merit but because not even just because I am human because I am one of God’s creations.” And so, he did. But then, the story continues, Rabbi haNasi regretted it. “Why did I give my hard-earned money to an am haaretz? Why did I give this grain sustaining a boar, a moron?” He cries. His students come up to him and say, “It is quite possible that that was your student, Yonatan ben Amram. You may remember he is very serious about trying to not make any profit from his studies. He only studies for the sake of studying itself.” They investigated and it was him, thus Rabbi haNasi says, “Let anyone enter and let all come and eat.”
One interpretation of what he is saying is that it is possible that it is harder to tell people’s worth than what we can see about them and what they can tell us about themselves. Their learning, their knowledge, their honesty, are harder to see. Human worth is hard to see. So by feeding all, I feed those who I would want to feed as well. By making sure that everyone is looked after, we include those that we would care about – distant relatives, family, people who are Jewish but aren’t part of our community. By feeding all, we make sure that everyone is included, regardless of what we know about them.
This is how this section of Talmud begins. And here is how it ends:
Benjamin the Tzadik seems to be a tzedakah collector, not high up on the rabbinic rungs. He is not amongst these rabbis who are debating on the inside about how our community functions. He is in many ways a nameless rabbi – except here, in this one mention in all our rabbinic literature. He is on the streets, we are assuming, and he is approached by a woman asking for help from the communal tzedakah fund. He says, “I’m sorry, but you know we are in a time of extreme poverty, we are in a time of not enough food, a time of real want and the communal tzedakah fund is empty.” Desperately she says, “But I have seven children that I need to feed and look after!” So he reaches into his own pocket and gives. Later in the story, we find out that he is sick. The same woman asks, “How can he, of all people, be sick?” And so God then intervenes on his behalf.
Dr. Gray points to the difference in these stories, which are worth drawing out:
Judah the prince is a rabbinic insider. Benjamin the Tzadik is an outsider, a lowly tzedaka collector, not in the study halls with his words being recorded for posterity.
Judah says NO, because you don’t meet the criteria. Benjamin says yes, even though there is no money. In the end, Judah is shown the error of his ways, and in the story of Benjamin, there is no error. It is just him trying to help. In which one does God appear at the end? Which one closes the cycle? The story of Benjamin the tzadek, the tzedakah collector, the righteous man, who only appears for this one lesson.
What is the lesson we can draw from this? What is it that Baba Batra can teach us about times of crisis? The more expansive open hand, the more we can think about being generous and giving, the better in these times.
We are all in the same boat- but, it has been reported, and this analysis is from the British newspaper the Independent: “In the first class on the Titanic, over a third of the men, almost all the women and all the children survived. In second class, it was less than 10 per cent of the men, 84 percent of the women and all the children. But in steerage, 12 percent of the men, 55 percent of the women and less than one in three of the children survived. Interrogating the figures shows that – despite the strict “women and children first” policy – a greater proportion of first-class men survived, than of third class children.”
Our Prime Minister in a recent press conference discussed increasing relief for Canadians. Amongst the questions, people said, “But how do you know people won’t cheat? How do you know people will not go back to work and instead take your help?” The answer given was, in some times it is more important to just try to help.
I know that our community is working on hands-on ways of helping. You will see soon advertisements for a Mitzvah week, coming to us at Holy Blossom Temple, one of Rabbi Splansky’s amazing ideas coming to fruition. Look out for more information on that coming soon.
We always have our rabbinic discretionary funds for those in need- both to collect into, and to distribute out from, in case you are in need at this time, please I know it’s hard and if you are really desperate to get to next week, as I know some of our families are, please feel free to be in touch. We also have a growing relationship with Jewish Free Loan, starting a small partnership in order to be an ongoing way to support those of our community in need. We are not at Holy Blossom, a social service agency, but we have great partnerships with Jewish community social service agencies to help. We can help get you there.
I know that differences in our community are not just financial, but also the ability to go outside, we have people who are vulnerable because of their health and need help with their shopping or currently have higher grocery bills because they need to order delivery in. We know that in our community, there are those who are able to deal with the stress of this time and others who are able to reach out and help out. We know that we have some at home with small children and working parents that are using their time wisely, and there are some with extra time, who are able to reach out and spend time with those children. Some of these opportunities will be part of our Mitzvah Week, and others, I know that you know people who you can reach out to, as we try to level this playing field around us. Because we know that it is up to us, if that boat is called Titanic, or if we can make it be like a more Jewish approach Noah’s ark, which we know was a diverse ship of survival. As the crisis deepens, let us continue to work to get through this together.