It's not too often that tree stumps make people think of medieval Jewish philosophers. But recently, as I was driving near my home in the Woodinville-Duvall area, that's just what happened.
It’s not too often that tree stumps make people think of medieval Jewish philosophers. But recently, as I was driving near my home in the Woodinville-Duvall area, that’s just what happened.
The philosopher was a 12th-century Egyptian rabbi named Moses Ben Maimon — also known as Maimonides. Among the most well-known of his voluminous teachings is a lesson about charity.
Maimonides suggested there are eight levels of charity — each level is greater than the next, but even the lowest levels of giving are sacred. The highest form of charity, Maimonides taught, is “finding a person a job, or strengthening his hand so that he no longer needs to beg.” The lowest? Giving begrudgingly.
But it was level No. 2 — just below the highest — that I thought of when I saw some tree stumps recently. The second level of charity, Maimonides taught, is when a person gives anonymously to an unknown recipient. He compared it to a box said to have been in the ancient Temple where the righteous left gifts the needy could later take to sustain themselves. Neither the giver nor the recipient knew the identity of the other.
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This type of charity does not result in accolades, public praise or names engraved over building entrances. This charity is given simply because giving it is the right thing to do.
The stumps that reminded me of this lesson weren’t just any stumps, mind you — they were special ones. A year or two ago, one of the windstorms that raged through our region blew down several trees across the roadways near my home. Public-service workers dutifully hurried out with chain saws to remove them, leaving the fresh-cut wooden ends of the sheared logs facing the street.
Driving past one of those sheared logs a couple of weeks later, I was surprised and delighted to discover that somebody — I don’t know who — had come along and transformed the plain sawed-off end into an image of a beautiful sunburst. The artist gave it such texture, shape and color that it still catches my eye whenever I drive past.
Not long afterward, I spotted another beautiful creation carved on the face of a nearby trunk. This one featured an image of a bird soaring high with its wings spread wide. Then there was another … and another … and another.
The Woodinville-Duvall Mystery Carver has struck over and over near my home. And I love it!
Of course, I have no idea who this person is. And for that matter, I don’t think he or she knows who I am, either. The Woodinville-Duvall Mystery Carver, you see, strikes anonymously, giving the gift of beauty to hundreds — maybe thousands — of nameless passers-by every day. Maimonides would have been impressed.
What a wonderful role model this person can be. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with attaching our names to the gifts we give. Generosity is still generosity, even if it does earn us a thank-you note. But there is always the risk these gifts are ultimately selfish, motivated not by the virtue of generosity but by the pleasant sensation of the grateful pat on the back. The anonymous gift, however, is the gift of a person motivated not by the promise of kudos but simply by a determination to act kindly.
And so, Woodinville-Duvall Mystery Artist Carver, whoever you are, on behalf of all of us who are the recipients of your lovely gifts, I thank you.
You have not shared your name with us, nor do you know our names, either. But you have given to us anyway, and in transforming these stumps, you exemplify humanity at its finest. We are grateful for the model and inspiration you provide us all.
Rabbi Mark S. Glickman leads Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island and Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville. Readers may send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.