The story of the challot in the ark is a classic Jewish folktale that really speaks to me (challot is the plural of “challah”, a type of bread; the ark is the cabinet at the front of a synagogue in which the Torah scrolls are kept). This telling of it is by Rabbi Scheinerman:
In the year 1502, a man named Jacobo, and his wife Esperanza, came to settle in the city of Tzfat, high on a mountain, in the holy land of Israel. Jacobo and Esperanza had been born in Spain, but in 1492, Spain expelled all her Jews. Jacobo and Esperanza, then young and strong, traveled from Spain to Salonika in Greece, where they lived for several years. There they heard of the great rabbi, Isaac Luria, who was known as the Ari, who led the Jews of Tzfat, a community steeped in kabbalah, the mystical teachings. Rabbi Luria taught that God is hidden and mysterious, but can be seen in the actions of those on earth who acknowledge God’s creative power and seek to obey God’s will. And so, in Salonika, Esperanza and Jacobo boarded a ship and sailed for Eretz Yisrael [the land of Israel].
In Tzfat, they found a community of Jews dedicated to serving God, but struggling to feed themselves. One Shabbat, the rabbi, an elderly man, taught the congregation that when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, before it was destroyed by the Romans, God was offered 12 loaves of bread each week just prior to Shabbat. Jacobo was a simple man, whose honesty, integrity, and kindness far exceeded his learning. He did not understand much of what the rabbi had said, but did remember about the loaves, so when he arrived home, he told Esperanza, “Next Friday morning, let us bake 12 loaves of challah. The rabbi taught this morning that God loves challah for Shabbat. I will bring them to the synagogue and give them to God.”
Now Esperanza was a wonderful baker, and Jacobo was filled with joy at the thought that he and his wife would be able to please God in this manner. That week, they baked the finest 12 loaves of challah they had ever made. They kneaded the dough with love, expressing their awe of God and their love of mitzvot through their efforts.
When the loaves came out of the oven and had cooled, Jacobo carefully packed them in a burlap sack, hoisted them onto his shoulder, and headed for the synagogue. When he arrived in the synagogue, he looked around to be certain that no one saw him, then tiptoed to the Holy Ark. Opening the Ark doors and placing the loaves of challah in the Holy Ark, Jacobo whispered, “Senor Dios, I have brought You the challah You love so much. My Esperanza and I made it just for You. Tomorrow, on Shabbat morning, when they open the Ark to take out the Sefer Torah, I am going to look to see if they are gone — every crumb — so we will know that You like our gift.” With that, Jacobo closed the Ark, drew the curtain closed across it, and tiptoed out of the synagogue.
No sooner had he left, than the shammes [caretaker] entered the room to sweep the floor and prepare the synagogue for Shabbat. When his eye caught sight of the Holy Ark, he put down his broom and approached it. “Lord,” he prayed, “I don’t ask for much. You know I am not paid for being the shammes of the synagogue. I do this job out of love for You and the Holy Torah. But my children are hungry. I need food for them. Even if the people of Tzfat cannot pay me, perhaps You can feed my children, Lord.” It was then that the shammas noticed the enticing aroma of warm bread emanating from the Ark. Impulsively, he took a step forward and opened it. Gasping, he exclaimed, “My Lord, a miracle! I knew You would feed my children, just as we pray ha-maycheen mazon le-chol b’riotav. Oh, thank you, Lord, thank you so much!”
The shammes gathered the challot and ran home to his wife, who was overjoyed to see the food for their children. They decided to eat two challot that evening for their Erev Shabbat meal, two challot for lunch after they davened [prayed] the next morning, two more for later in the afternoon at Se’udah Shlishi [“third meal”; one way Shabbat was traditionally made special was to eat three meals that day compared to two, or one, the other days], and save one for each day of the coming week. “Next week, we shall see what happens,” the shammes’s wife told him, for her faith was strong.
The next morning, the congregation assembled in the synagogue to celebrate Shabbat. Jacobo waited eagerly for the Ark to be opened. He grew more and more anxious. Would the challot still be there? Had God accepted their gift? Had God enjoyed the challot? When Rabbi Luria opened the Ark, Jacobo’s prayer was answered. There was not a crumb in the Ark! “Baruch hashem! Thank God!” he prayed, and smiled at Esperanza.
As soon as three stars appeared in the sky, Esperanza and Jacobo made Havdalah [a ritual] to end Shabbat and set about discussing their plans to bake challot for God every Friday morning. The following Friday, they removed 12 beautiful challot from their oven, wrapped them in burlap, and took them quietly to the synagogue. Jacobo checked that no one was about before placing them lovingly in the Holy Ark. A short time later, the shammes came to clean the synagogue and, approaching the Ark, found his challah waiting for him, still warm from the oven.
This scene repeated itself each week, just before Shabbat, for thirty years.
One Friday morning, as Jacobo was placing the challah in the Ark, as he had done every week for three decades, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned to see the rabbi, now a very old man. “What are you doing?” the rabbi shouted at him angrily. “What do you mean by putting bread in the Holy Ark?”
“I bring these challot to God every week,” Jacobo stammered. “I have been doing this for 30 years.”
“You have been bringing bread to God each week for 30 years?” the rabbi asked in amazement. “Whatever for?”
“Because of what you taught,” replied Jacobo, and he recounted what he remembered of the rabbi’s sermon about the loaves of bread in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
“You fool! God doesn’t eat food like people!” said the rabbi.
“Ah, you are learned and wise,” said Jacobo, “but you don’t know everything. You see, every week God accepts our gift of challah. For 30 years, there hasn’t been a crumb left in the Ark come Shabbat morning.”
Now the rabbi was curious, so he said, “Jacobo, let us hide in the back of the synagogue and see just what happens to your challot.” So the two men hid behind the last row of benches and waited patiently. They didn’t have long to wait.
Several minutes later, the shammes entered the room and immediately approached the ark. Opening the door, he prayed, “Lord, for 30 years you have feed my family and sustained us in good times and bad. We give you thanks.”
The rabbi jumped up and screamed, “You, too, are a fool! Do you think that God bakes bread and leaves the loaves in the Ark?”
The shammes hung his head in shame and began sobbing. “I don’t get paid for cleaning the synagogue, Rabbi. I thought this was God’s way of repaying me for my work.”
At just that moment, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Ari, walked into the synagogue and, hearing the loud and angry voice of the rabbi and the sobbing of the shammes, asked what was happening. The shammes was miserable because he knew he would never find challah in the ark again. Jacobo was miserable because he had simply wanted to please God and now he could no longer do this. When the entire story had been explained to him, Rabbi Luria smiled and turned first to the rabbi. “Rabbi, never since the Destruction of the Temple, has God had such pleasure as from watching what has gone on in your synagogue each week. Thirty years ago, you were an old, sick man and God had decreed that you would soon die. But since your teaching resulted in so much righteousness on the part of these people, God wanted you to live.” Then the Ari turned to Jacobo and the shammes. “Now that you know who is eating the challot, it will be more difficult to continue as you have for 30 years. But I want you to continue as you have, and believe with perfect faith that if you, Jacobo, bring your challot directly to the shammes, God will be pleased no less than before, for it is through acts of love and kindness that we serve God and repair the world. And you” the great Ari turned to the shammas, “know that these challot were baked by Jacobo and Esperanza, but they come from God, as well, because Jews are commanded to do the work of God in this world, feeding the hungry and binding the wounds of those who suffer.”
From that day on, Esperanza and Jacobo baked a dozen loaves of challah each Friday, as they had for three decades, and brought it to the home of the shammas, who gratefully accepted the loaves.
I’m not sure to what extent it’s meaningful to speak of God being “pleased”, but whatever amount of meaning that has, I think it certainly is something like this that would be pleasing. I wonder though, why is it that it would be more difficult to do things for a living, breathing person, whose need we can plainly see, than to do the same thing for an intangible Being which is pretty near universally described as infinitely perfect and without any physical needs whatsoever?
I think that some of the difficulty lies in our almost-irresistible tendency to judge, before we decide to help someone, “does he deserve my help?” We tend to, knowingly or not, try to find reasons for another’s misfortune. Often when we think we’ve identified a reason, we then think that the person should have known to do this instead of that, to avoid their misfortune. But the fact is, they didn’t. Now, you as well as they, have the opportunity to learn from their mistake – if they made one.
Which leads me to the second reason I think it’s more difficult: when we are presented with an opportunity to help another person, there’s the tendency to gauge what is the likelihood of our benefiting in the future, as a result. If one believes in an all-powerful, personal God, that likelihood is quite high. Recompense from another person, in contrast, may not be very likely at all. But “what’s in it for me?” is obviously not the highest morality humans can or should aspire to. When you see a person in need, and you have the means to help that person, let that be enough reason to do so. Just because: a human life is precious enough in its own right. Not because it will “please God” if you do, or make God “angry” if you don’t, but just because: you can. If we all loved each other as much as people talk about loving God, what a wonderful world it would be.