With the advent of the communist regime, almost all the dozens of synagogues in the city of Odessa were closed down. However, Stalin permitted one shul (located in a sleazy section of the city, it still functions).
In 1991, I was sent from the Jewish community of Baltimore to the Jewish community of Odessa. The Iron Curtain had fallen, and many Jewish organizations were helping the formerly isolated Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union.
My first morning in Odessa, I visited that old shul. Quite a few people were present but most had no clue about the worship services; the practice of prayer had not survived 70 years of communist domination.
After the sefer Torah was removed from the ark, however, the scene resembled most other synagogues on a weekday morning. But suddenly it dawned on me that something was missing: There was no tzedaka box!
Communism had successfully expunged the practice of charity from the value system of these noble Jews.
Every year at this time, I remember that old shul, for it is in this week’s parsha, Re’eh, that we read about the mitzva of tzedaka:
“If there is a needy person among you…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs…. Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-9)
I reflected that morning on my good fortune in having grown up in a very different old synagogue, in Brooklyn. My grandmother instructed me to put aside some of the coins from my allowance to put in the pushka in shul every weekday morning. We young boys would fight over the privilege of taking the pushka around to all those in attendance and collecting their contributions. I cherish the memory of the old man who would chant as we paraded around the shul — “Pato’ach tiftach et yadcha lo,” “Open, yes, open, your hand to him.”
Maimonides writes that we must take greater care about the mitzva of charity than any other, based on the talmudic statement that this one mitzva is equivalent to all others.
He writes, “For the throne of Israel will not be firmly established, nor will true belief prevail, without the power of charity…. Nor will Israel attain redemption by any means other than by acts of charity.” Maimonides further asserts that compassion for others is the hallmark of a member of the Jewish people.
That morning in Odessa, I took out a Humash and read the words from Re’eh quoted above. I promised those present that if they would designate a small cardboard box as a temporary tzedaka box, I would see to it that a proper pushka be delivered to them from my community in Baltimore.
Later I received a letter thanking me and my community for the silver pushka we sent; it assured us that by Friday morning each week, the tzedaka box was full, its proceeds to be distributed to the needy so that they could celebrate Shabbat befittingly.