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Charity

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One Torah aspect in which American Jewry has consistently excelled is the mitzvah of tzedakah (charity). Jews are globally known and respected for their great philanthropy–American Jews most of all.

Charity is a universal ideal. We humans seem to have been endowed with an intrinsic moral compass, an ingrained sense of compassion that seems to underlie much of what we do. But the problem with this attitude, although purely humanistic, is that as wonderful as charity is–generosity which instinctively flows from one’s nature–it often leaves G-d out of the equation: “I’m being good because I want to be good.” For example, when I flip some coins to a pauper simply because of some primal empathy, where does G-d fit into the picture? The answer is that He doesn’t. Animals follow their instincts, and I’m simply an animal of a higher sort–following my moral tendency to help a person in need.

But tzedakah is after all a mitzvah, a “commandment,” which presupposes a Commander (G-d). If we’re fulfilling G-d’s mandate, it would be foolish to forget Him in the process, and/or to ignore the depth inherent in His command. What does the Torah teach us about tzedakah?

The Talmud (Bava Basra 9A) proclaims: “Tzedakah is equivalent to all the other commandments combined.” The Rabbis of the Talmud are not given to empty hyperbole. What are they trying to tell us? They certainly can’t mean that a charity-giver can ignore all the other commandments. Rather, they are trying to say that tzedakah best epitomizes what we are trying to accomplish through mitzvos. Indeed, whenever the euphemism ‘the mitzvah’ (without specifying which mitzvah) is used throughout the entire Jerusalem Talmud, the reference is to tzedakah: the mitzvah which represents and symbolizes all the others. How is this so?

We work hard for our money. A great deal of thought, emotion and effort goes into earning a living, and much of our lives revolves around this pursuit. We invest a significant part of our lives in the quest for wealth, and spend a good portion on life’s needs and luxuries–things which raise the “quality of life.” When we look at it this way, money isn’t just green bills–it is life’s energy. We invest our energy into generating the money, and use the money to generate an enriched life.

The goal of Torah is to elevate the mundane dimension of our personalities. Through observing the Torah, we become more than mere intelligent mammals, we refine ourselves into beings created “in the image of G-d.” Every mitzvah sublimates a different nuance of our persona. Tzedakah does more than any mitzvah to accomplish this end. After investing our very beings into earning our money, and transcending the deep-seated pleasure we can buy with that money, by giving it away selflessly for a G-dly purpose, we elevate the soul energy represented by the money, and basically our entire mundane selves.

This may be a lot to ask of a person, but the Torah expects nothing less. The word tzedakah has been translated into English as “charity,” indicating a benevolence or kindness done for another. That’s true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The word tzedakah comes from the root word tzedek, meaning justice. The Torah considers giving ‘tzedakah’ to be a wonderful thing, but not something that’s really beyond the call of duty (as we’d prefer to think); it is after all only just, or “fitting,” that we give tzedakah.

Look at it this way. We thank G-d for the positive elements of  our lives. We realize that there’s only so far our efforts can take us, while the rest is up to G-d. For example, a self-made millionaire will admit that his long hours, ingenious ideas and business savvy did not guarantee him success–the road of history is, figuratively speaking, littered with the bodies of hard working geniuses who didn’t succeed in business. Our millionaire worked hard and smartly, and G-d blessed him with some positive breaks (that one account or contact that put him over the top). Since G-d trusted us with money, since He granted us guardianship of this vital resource, we are obligated to use it as He’s directed us (after all, He is a partner) and give tzedakah. He’s not even asking for a fifty percent cut; Jewish Law directs that a ten percent tithe be given. So it’s only “just,” only right, that we use some of the money entrusted to us by G-d in the way He sees fit.

Interestingly, we find that for His share, G-d guarantees that He’ll do His part for the business. Nevertheless, even though we believe in reward and punishment, it’s not always immediate. It’s dangerous to expect your stocks to go up because you put on tefillin this morning.

But it’s a different story with tzedakah. In Malachi 3:10, G-d exhorts us to give tzedakah and says: “…test Me in this, [and see] if I don’t open for you the heaven’s windows and rain down endless blessing upon you.”

So, is giving tzedakah nice and praiseworthy? Of course, because you have the choice to do otherwise. But G-d expects nothing less–it’s the just thing to do.

By Rabbi Mendy Herson.

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