In Kallah Rabbati (2:13), an early medieval rabbinic text, we read the following story about the great Rabbis Akiva and Tarfon:
It was said about Rabbi Tarfon that he was a greatly wealthy man, but he did not donate much to the poor. Once, Rabbi Akiva said to him: “Would you like me to buy you a city or two [using your money]?” He replied “yes”—Rabbi Tarfon went and brought Rabbi Akiva four thousand golden dinars. Rabbi Akiva went and gave the money to the poor. Some time later, Rabbi Tarfon found Rabbi Akiva and said to him: “Where are the cities that you bought me?” Rabbi Akiva took him by the hand, walked him to the house of study, and brought over a child who had in his hand the book of Psalms. The boy read, continuing on until he reached this verse: “[Blessed are those who fear the Lord…] they have freely scattered their gifts to the poor.” (Ps 112:1, 9)
What an incredible—if fanciful—tale! What’s more, though the reaction of Rabbi Tarfon isn’t recorded here, a slightly different version of the story is found in the related Tractate Kallah (5:1), which ends with Rabbi Akiva proclaiming to Rabbi Tarfon, referring to the house of study, that “this is the city that I bought you!” According to this alternative version of the legend, Rabbi Tarfon responds by kissing Rabbi Akiva, giving him more money to donate to the poor, and declaring “my master, chief are you in wisdom and chief are you in good acts!”
Now…I find it highly doubtful that Rabbi Tarfon would truly have been quite as thrilled as described, seeing that the equivalent of thousands upon thousands of his dollars were used for reasons he had not approved. Nevertheless, the lesson of the story is quite telling. Rabbi Akiva, one of the most revered Sages of our tradition, is lauded for his behavior. Why so? Not to teach that improper use of funds is praiseworthy; but, instead, to underscore just how important it is to give tzedakah to support students.
At Temple Beth Or, we take this matter as seriously as any other. A reason for us to have great pride is that our community makes sure not to deny any child the opportunity to study at Makor on account of financial need. The primary mechanism we use to make this happen is the Nelson Burstein Educational Scholarship Fund—i.e., the Saba Fund. This fund, which has been around for nearly ten years now, is earmarked specifically to help families who want to provide their children with a Jewish education but who would find the tuition of Makor prohibitive or overly burdensome.
The Saba fund is a great asset and helps us—in Rabbi Akiva’s words— to sustain our “city.” However, the money within Saba fund is dwindling, and that should be jarring not just to those who might be in need of it—those with tight finances and school-aged children—but to everyone in our community. Anyone invested in the future of Judaism is effected by the next generation’s ability to access Jewish education.
At Temple Beth Or, we all should be (and I suspect are!) invested in the future of Judaism—it’s why we’re here in the first place. Nevertheless, if you have been searching for a mitzvah to fulfill, look no further: make a gift to the Saba fund and do your part to strengthen the next generation of Judaism. Help us to make sure that your “synagogue city” is healthy and vibrant for many more years to come!
Rabbi Ari Ballaban