Friday, 14th January 2011
Batik – découpage – charcoal drawings – patchwork clothes… crafts come and go by fashion. One such fad involved sticking nails into bars of soap, and winding coloured strings around them in a pattern.
A friend had a sister who resided in an Assisted Living facility. She could not communicate well and had different needs that could not be met inside a family home. Whenever I went to see her, she always smelled of Palmolive Soap. The carers at the place always made sure that their charges lacked for nothing; they were kept scrupulously clean and well-fed, and comfortable.
I did not count how many wannabe decorated soaps ended up in soap dishes with bits missing, after I tapped in the nails too brusquely. However, my first successfully, perfectly decorated soap just happened to be a bar of Palmolive, and I knew just the person to whom to give it.
When I took it out of my bag, her eyes shone – because, she said, that was the first present anyone had given specifically to her in “all her life”. It was then that I realised that sharing and caring are sometimes not enough to make someone feel loved; the extra element is giving – without ever expecting anything in return.
Time passes inexorably on; digital dots blink relentlessly and the hands of an analogue clock lock, only to part and meet about 65 minutes later. Each minute we spend being selfish and thinking of our own needs is a minute less that we have time for others. As Saint Francis succinctly explains, it is in giving that we receive.
Judaism lauds charity, known as tzedakah. The great Jewish intellectual and physician Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, most often referred to by the acronym RaMBaM, lived in the 12th century. It was he who wrote the Mishnah Torah, the code of Jewish law based on the Rabbinic oral tradition, and enumerated the different levels of tzedakah from the least to the most honourable.
At the very bottom of the list come the donations that are given grudgingly. When someone passes the hat around, you don’t want to be shown up in front of the other guests. And you could do with another pair of earrings, couldn’t you?
You may, alternatively, opt to give less than you know you ought to, yet with good grace. You can get a cheaper pair of earrings, and you’ve done your part, simultaneously.
Collections are made for those in need. When asked for financial help, you make your donation. This, according to RaMBaM, does have merit – but it is even better had you made your gift without being asked.
RaMBaM states that the fourth level of charity is when the beneficiary knows who has contributed to his needs, but the donor does not know who has received his tzedakah.
Next up on the list comes an act of charity where the giver knows who will be benefitting from his donation, but for the person who receives it, it is “heaven-sent”.
People to whom making charitable acts is a way of life, don’t usually chase their money to see where it ends up. And people who survive on charity may not even have the vaguest idea who has recognised his need and has chosen to lighten his burden.
RaMBaM cites as the absolute perfection of tzedakah when one helps sustain someone before the need arises. And it is here that tzedakah becomes a prayer and a sign of empowerment.
The perfection of charity is not giving hand-me-down clothes that do not fit you anyway to a divorced friend who finds herself living hand-to-mouth with three children to care for. It is preserving the dignity of a person by sharing what you have – what you are still using yourself – in a casual manner, and stating that you know she would have done the same for you.
Because friendship goes beyond love and empathy; it is doing unto others what you would have liked them to do to you. If you are in a position to do so, you can offer them, before they become impoverished, a significant amount of money in a way that does not make the person feel beholden to you. You can, if the person prefers it that way, offer the sum as a loan, with the minimum amount of interest possible.
You can also help a person find employment… or, as the adage says, teach him to fish so that he will not be dependent on the next fish you purchase for him.
Give until it hurts;
Do as you would be done by;
And the world is cured!
Share and share alike;
Contribute to charity…
No more platitudes.
Lend me your ear…
Walk another mile with me;
Be my friend in need.
Do good while you can –
Charity begins at home
The world’s your oyster.