It was common for great rabbis to come from lines of great rabbis. Rabbi Mordechai HaKohen was once asked about his grandfather, Reb Shalom, of whom no one had ever heard. Rabbi Mordechai said: “Truly he was a Lamed Vavnik, a Hidden Saint. By day he would earn his living as a goldsmith, all the while focusing his mind on the deepest mysteries of the Torah. And at night he would arise at midnight to study the words of Kabbalah. And not only this,” Rabbi Mordechai continued, “as was customary among all the pious, my grandfather would set aside a tenth of his earnings for the poor.”
The questioner said: “With all due respect, Rabbi, this is not so unusual. Many of us meditate on Torah during the day and study Kabbalah at night. And every Jew is obligated to give a tenth of all earnings to see to the welfare of the poor.”
Rabbi Mordechai smiled. “So there is more,” he said. “My grandfather would give a tenth of his profits to tzedakah, and he would give a tenth of his losses as well.”
“I am not sure I understand,” the other said.
“My grandfather once lost a lot of money when he failed to refine a great amount of gold properly. He calculated one tenth of this loss and took that amount out of his savings and gave it to the poor.”
“But we are required to share only our profits, not our losses, for to do otherwise would compound those losses.”
“Which is why my grandfather was a tzaddik. He believed we are to bless God for all that comes to us, the bad as well as the good. And he believed that the poor should not suffer from his own mistakes. Therefore, my grandfather chose to give thanks to God for his losses as well as his earnings by donating ten percent of each to the poor.”
Lamed Vavnik: Hidden Saint, from the Hebrew letters lamed and vav, whose numerical value equals thirty-six. A Lamed Vavnik is a saint who works selflessly behind the scenes to see that goodness triumphs over evil. There are thought to be thirty-six Hidden Saints in the world at all times, and it is by the goodness of their deeds that the world survives.
Kabbalah (from the Hebrew kabel, to receive): Jewish mystical tradition. Midnight was considered a moment outside normal time. Studying at midnight allowed the kabbalist to slip the bonds of normal consciousness and enter paradise.
Tzedakah (from tzedek, justice): The act of donating 10 percent of one’s earnings to the poor.
Tzaddik (from tzedek, justice): A saint.
Acts of generosity are essential to the spiritual life, reflecting as they do an awareness of the interconnectedness of all beings. Judaism sets a minimum standard for giving: ten percent of your earnings. But the Hasid, the compassionate disciple of God, goes beyond the letter of the law. Reb Shalom gave of his losses also.
You may not aspire to such a level of sainthood, but your connection with others is no less than that of Reb Shalom. The question is: How generous are you? Do you even meet the minimum standard of tzedakah, or are you apt to give less in the hope of having more? The next time you wonder how far you are progressing on the spiritual path, don’t look only to the sacred books on your shelf, but look also to the checkbook in your drawer or purse.