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Friday, 19 June 2015

Red chairs and blue chairs

Daf Yomi Nedarim 24


Our shul is packed for Kol Nidrei.   On the holiest day of the year, the soul shines brightest and tells the holy Jewish body it inhabits to go to shul.  Our members have set seats in the main section of the shul – we call these the red seats.  But we also provide extra seats for non-members at the back of the shul – these we refer to as the blue seats. 

Why won’t blue seaters join the synagogue?  They attend every year without fail, and it’s not as if they’re getting any less benefit from the shul than the bulk of our members who also only attend on High Holy days!  It can’t be the money that’s impeding their joining – we allow ‘adjusted’ memberships for those who cannot afford to pay full board.  So what’s stopping them from becoming members?

We learned in a Mishnah: If one says to his friend, ‘I vow abstinence from you, unless you take this gift from me,’ he can annul his vow without the help of a sage.
The Gemara elucidates: The one who made the vow is telling his friend, ‘I am not a dog that you need to feed without taking anything in return.’
Rabbeinu Nissim explains: The point of this person’s vow swearing off anything from his friend is to say that unless their relationship is a two-way street and the other fellow will accept his gift, he is likewise not interested in deriving any benefit from the other person.

Most people don’t like to be takers.  We would much rather be on the giving side than the receiving side.   In fact, that’s why we are here in this world – to contribute.  The more we contribute, the more we have achieved our earthly goals and mission. 

But the Almighty does not always provide us with the wherewithal to give.  We are all takers in some form or fashion.  Whether it is a public good, or a piece of advice, there is no shortage of situations that life calls upon us to be takers.  If you are on the giving end of that relationship, you should always try to find some way to allow the recipient to give back, so that they do not feel uncomfortable.

When you give to someone in need, try to find a way for them to ‘do you a favour’ in return.  If they seek financial assistance, ask them to help you move some boxes the next week.  Or ask them their opinion on an important matter.  That way, they feel valid and worthy and not like ‘a dog’ being fed. 

One of the reasons people don’t come to shul is that they feel awkward if they’re not a member.  It’s not that they don’t feel welcome.  It’s that they don’t feel comfortable being takers.  And so, if they are not in a position to pay their dues, they simply opt out altogether.  Of course, that’s very sad.  We have a responsibility to make everyone feel a part of the shul and Jewish life, no matter their situation.  And the way to do that is not just to smile and offer them a bowl of cholent.   We need to get them volunteering in some capacity, so that they feel they are contributing and giving back and no longer feeling awkward about attending for free. 

If you see someone new in shul, don’t pounce on them for membership.  Instead, engage with them and see how they can get involved volunteering for the shul.  Once they’re invested, you can have the membership conversation.  Otherwise, you run the risk of completely scaring them off if they can’t afford to pay full membership and don’t want to be perceived as takers.


Nobody wants to be a charity case.  When you help somebody out, always try to find a way to make them feel it’s a two-way street.  May you merit forever being a contributor and finding ways to maximize others’ contributions, financial and otherwise!