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Charity Saves from Death (Part II)

Here is a different take on the proverb “Charity Saves from Death” from Meesh Hammer-Kossoy, of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies:

“Charity saves from death” Proverbs 10:2  

I was hurrying to wait.  It would be 4 anxious hours in the hospital waiting room while they sawed open my father’s chest, disconnected his heart, and replaced the plumbing. But I knew that I couldn’t go to the hospital without getting up even earlier to make a donation. 

First and foremost, it was about fighting my sense of powerlessness. All of us, family and friends alike had a lot of nervous energy.  Mom cooked enough to feed an army.  She couldn’t do much to help Dad through the surgery or balance his delicate blood sugar levels, but she certainly could make sure that we would be cared for.  More than anything else, Dad’s survival was in God’s hands.  I davened a lot.  But we also agreed to follow Heschel’s advice and pray with our feet.  Everyone who could donated blood during the surgery.  And of course, “Charity saves from death” (Proverbs 10:2).  Surely, God has more compassion on those who themselves strive to be compassionate.

The Talmud (Shabbat 156a) tells the following story about Rabbi Akiva and his daughter: 

Now, astrologers told him, on the day she enters the bridal chamber a snake will bite her and she will die. He was very worried about this. On that day [of her marriage] she took a brooch [and] stuck it into the wall and by chance it penetrated [sank] into the eye of a serpent. The following morning, when she took it out, the snake came trailing after it. ‘What did you do?’ her father asked her. ‘A poor man came to our door in the evening.’ she replied, ‘and everybody was busy at the banquet, and there was none to attend to him. So I took the portion which was given to me and gave it to him. ‘You have done a good deed,’ said he to her. Thereupon R. Akiba went out and lectured: ‘But charity delivereth from death’: and not [merely] from an unnatural death, but from death itself.

God, suggests this story, follows our cues.  When Rabbi Akiva’s daughter demonstrates her concern for the poor person in need, God feels inspired to treat her in kind.  I’ve always read these stories with a healthy skepticism—miracles are imperceptible in our day, reward and punishment is a primitive way to see the world.  We should surely do good acts for their own sake (as Rabbi Akiva’s daughter does), and not to be saved from death (as Rabbi Akiva or the narrator seems to suggest).  I certainly wasn’t thinking about this story when I got out my credit card.  But when I look back on it, I see my own actions echoed in the story, and I reflect in a more nuanced way on our motives for giving.

On average, bypass surgery in the US only costs around $45,000.  And the insurance company paid for it all.  Still, I was poignantly aware on that day of just how fortunate we were that the cost of this surgery was a non-issue.  I was also aware of just how many other lives we failed to save for a much smaller sum.  It is pointless to feel guilty for our place of privilege, and in this case there was no guilt at all.  My father is worth it—and much more. 

The Mishnah teaches us that whoever saves a single life it is as if he or she has saved an entire world (Sanhedrin 4:5).  I couldn’t have understood it more deeply than I did that day.  And I wanted to make it true for others as well.  I am thankful for the opportunity to give.

Meesh Hammer-Kossoy

Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy teaches Talmud and Social Justice at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, a non-denominational, co-ed beit midrash.

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