The Master taught us, “Be careful not to parade your acts of tzedakah in front of people in order to be seen by them! If you do, you have no reward from your father in heaven” (Matt. 6:1, CJB). Acts of tzedakah are often done in public, and appropriately so. In my city, you sometimes see folks standing along freeway off ramps or at busy intersections asking for some monetary help. If you pull over and hand them a dollar or two, everyone sees it. If you go visit someone in the hospital, the staff and other visitors see it, and may even see you praying with the person. Yeshua isn’t telling us not to do such public acts of tzedakah, but not to do them “in order to be seen.” Apparently there’s an inherent risk in practicing righteousness that we can do it outwardly, but with an inner disconnect. We’re not moved by compassion or the desire to imitate Messiah, but by a craving for recognition.
Righteousness, then, means doing the right thing whether anyone is watching or not (and knowing that there actually is One who is watching all the time), and lining up inwardly with the outward act. Public righteousness should reflect private rightness with Hashem.
So, what did I learn on the elevator?
I was on my way to pray for a congregant before he went in for an operation, and he told me to meet him on the sixth floor. Now, as part of my general mussar practice I’m working on being friendlier and more outgoing than is my natural tendency, especially in claustrophobic settings like elevators and airplane seats. When I got on the elevator, as the doors were closing, a guy ran up, stuck out his arm and got the doors to open again, and jumped in. He made a joke about it, and I responded with something about sliding into home base. We both smiled and I got off at the sixth floor and wandered around looking for the right place until someone told me that everyone had to check in at the registration desk on the ground floor. I went back to the elevator to head down, and there was already a man in it wearing a bright pink polo shirt, who said something about being lost. Continuing in my friendly mode, I told him I was lost too and made a joke that since we’re lost we have to go faster. It doesn’t sound that funny, but he got it, and we both smiled as we got off at the ground floor.
A minute later when I found my friend, pink polo shirt had just walked up ahead of me, to pray with him also. My friend introduced us and told him that I was his rabbi. After we prayed I thought how embarrassed I’d have been if I’d been my usual curmudgeonly self on the elevator and just ignored the guy in the pink shirt . . . and then showed up as the righteous rabbi there to pray for the sick.
I’m writing this during the days of counting the Omer (see Lev. 23:10-17), and I think there’s a connection. We count the days that begin with the offering of firstfruits during Passover to prepare for Shavuot, the anniversary of the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai. There the Lord tells us, “You will be my own treasure from among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you will be a kingdom of cohanim for me, a nation set apart” (Ex. 19:5-6). If you’re going to receive such a commission, righteousness demands that you match up inwardly.
Righteousness requires integrity, consistency between the public self and the private self, between the specialized role we play and how we live throughout the day. Without that integrity, our acts of tzedakah become mere show, unlikely to generate much spiritual return.