Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Kindness of Meah She’arim

On trips to Israel, many travel to the quaint Jerusalem neighborhood known as Meah She’arim. Meah She’arim is home of the Yerushalmi “ultra-Orthodox” community who seek insularity and famously ask those visiting their community to comply with their rigorous dress code. Aside from the Judaica stores and shopping, entering the area almost transports one back to a different century within a modern city. The name of the enclave Meah She’arim finds its source in this week’s Parasha, parashat Toledot.

Then Isaac sowed in that land, and reaped in the same year a hundredfold; and the Lord blessed him” (Genesis 26:12). The description of Isaac’s agricultural return, 100 times his initial investment, in Hebrew is rendered as Meah She’arim.

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all described as shepherds. Other than this textual source, there is no mention of any of the patriarchs being farmers. Given that Isaac spent his life building upon and re-creating his father Abraham’s experiences, it is odd to learn that he deviated somewhat vocationally.

The Biblical commentator Rashi teaches that Isaac’s agricultural success was due to a Divine blessing. But the author of the Midrash Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, concurs with other Midrashic sources who maintain that the miraculous growth really refers to Isaac’s tithes bearing fruit, and not to mean that Isaac had become a farmer. God blessed all of Isaac’s charitable work, so it would be extremely successful.

The Talmud (Yevamot 79a) declares that three character traits distinguish the Jewish people: compassion, modesty/bashfulness and kindness to one another. Scripture is full of examples of these traits embedded in our greatest leaders. Sharing charitably with those in one’s surroundings, is learned from many actions of the patriarchs and matriarchs. Tithing and charity may be virtues we learn from Isaac. The tight-knit community of Meah She’arim is but one Jewish community that is renowned for its kindness and its abundant communal institutions that were established to help its citizens.

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