April 22, 2024
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April 22, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Brenda was a highly accomplished businesswoman, philanthropist and community activist. She built her bicycle-parts company from scratch, after spending 10 years working for Mike’s Bikes, the most powerful company in the industry. Brenda was very generous with her money, but gave mostly to groups of people who either “helped themselves” (in her words) or “couldn’t help themselves” (also, in her words). For example, she was happy to donate to libraries, art galleries, and museums, to lend money to people looking to start their own businesses; this was the “helped themselves” group. Brenda also gave generously to organizations that provide for those who are sick and those that support children with unfortunate upbringings; this was the “can’t help themselves” crowd. She was recognized by her community for her efforts, and received many honors for her generous donations.

So to whom did Brenda not give? Brenda was against giving to those who were poor, but were never seriously sick and who never had something terrible happen to them. A “simply unemployed” person (Brenda’s words, yet again) was not somebody Brenda had pity for. She felt bad for anyone who suffered, but couldn’t bring herself to give money to someone who should have “worked harder,” or “showed more responsibility.” Brenda didn’t want to waste her money on people she thought would likely waste what she gave them.

Not only was this a personal decision Brenda made, she also tried to get her community to follow along. She went to town council meetings to argue against putting money aside in the budget for the local homeless and was constantly talking about how terrible taxes were. Why should Brenda, who worked so hard to get where she was, have to just give money away to reward others for being lazy? It made no sense! Now, many people can go through their lives thinking this way. You can’t blame them; how are they supposed to know what people can and can’t control about their lives? But this is a parsha story, so we know that Brenda will get a wake-up call. In this case, it came in the form of her mom and an old friend.

One sunny Sunday afternoon, Brenda took a drive to visit her parents and to take her mom shopping. When she arrived at her parents’ house, they were looking through old family pictures. Brenda sat down to share old memories with them and was looking through some of her brother’s baby pictures when her mother spoke up. “Oh, were you a troublemaker as a child! Remember how tough and stubborn you were?” Brenda smiled and rolled her eyes. Mom continued, “You really don’t remember? When you were nine, you kept getting into fights with the girl next door. I’ll never forget that time she called your brother “a little rat” and you came storming out of the house, ready for revenge. Oh, were we lucky your father decided to come home early from work that day! He hopped out of his car and grabbed you before you did something terrible!” Brenda just smiled and said, “Come on, Mom. Those new shoes won’t buy themselves.” So they stood up and headed to go shopping.

While at the mall, Brenda and her mom ran into Rachel, Brenda’s old college friend. Mom went ahead into the next store, as Brenda and Rachel spent a few minutes catching up. “So, Rachel, how have you been?” asked Brenda politely. “I’ve been well,” said Rachel. “It was tough for me for a few years when Cindy’s Cycles went out of business, but I’ve gotten back on my feet. Remember when you were deciding between taking the job at Mike’s Bike or Cindy’s Cycles? I was actually next in line at Mike’s Bikes if you didn’t take the job. That’s really where I wanted to work. No hard feelings, but you definitely made the right choice!” They chatted for a few more minutes, gave each other a quick hug, and Rachel went on her way. But now something was bothering Brenda. She remembered how she chose between taking the job at Mike’s and working at Cindy’s; she flipped a coin! Brenda wasn’t upset, but she was feeling kind of bad that she made the correct decision luckily, while Rachel knew the right choice, but didn’t get to decide.

That night, Brenda dreamt she was a child again and standing out on her porch. A girl came out of the house next door and started pointing and screaming at Brenda. Brenda and the girl ran toward each other, and next thing she knew, Brenda woke up in jail. She was now older, as she noticed from her sad reflection in the mirror. A moment later a guard came by. “Good news, Brenda,” you’re being let out early. Cindy from Cindy’s Cycles spoke to the judge and you will be allowed to go work for her. A feeling of terror washed over Brenda. “No! Not Cindy’s Cycles! Don’t make me go there! Anywhere but there!” The guard smiled and suddenly Brenda saw the guard’s face replaced by Rachel’s. “Sorry, but the last job at Mike’s was just taken. It’s Cindy’s for you! Hahahahaha!”

At that moment, Brenda woke with a start. She climbed out of bed and headed to the kitchen to get a glass of water. While standing by the refrigerator and drinking, Brenda went over the dream in her head. What if she had taken the job at Cindy’s instead? What if the coin landed on heads instead of tails? What if her father didn’t come home early? Would she be unemployed? Would she have spent most of her life in and out of jail? One or two simple twists of fate, and, Brenda realized, she could be exactly like those “won’t help themselves-ers” for whom she had little sympathy. From then on, Brenda was a bit more generous to those whose stories she had no right to judge.

When we think about the mitzvot of shemitah and yovel, with their requirements to ignore loans, leave your land for the poor, and to even return land to those from whom you purchased it, it seems odd. Why are we required to give away that for which we worked hard? Why should those who have nothing just get to take from us without earning it? The answer is that we don’t know other people’s stories and we don’t really know our own. A successful person can’t know for sure which decisions he or she made that were purely luck, and how close he or she may have come to failure. Similarly, we don’t know why certain people are in unfortunate situations. Maybe they put in even more work than we did, but had bad luck. Some people are just born in the wrong place or at the wrong time to be successful. The mitzvot of shemitah and yovel teach us to be humble about our successes, and to realize that others who are less fortunate deserve a little extra too. After all, they might just be unlucky versions of me and you.

By Yair Daar

 

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