One of the most striking characteristics of the Jewish people was that, whenever they were asked, they gave. In the wilderness, when asked to contribute to the Golden Calf, they gave without delay (as recorded in this week's Torah portion). When asked to make a donation to the building of the Sanctuary they did likewise. The Golden Calf was a pagan idol. The Sanctuary was a home for the Divine presence. There was nothing in common between them except that they both came into being through voluntary donations.
The Jerusalem Talmud expresses amazement (1): “One cannot understand the nature of this people: if appealed to for the Calf they give; if appealed to for the Sanctuary they give.” Go, figure! It seems Jews are obsessed with giving. Now it is incumbent upon us to make sure our giving is directed to a good cause.
The late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, an outstanding rabbinic thinker of the twentieth century, recounts an occasion when his grandfather, the great Jewish scholar Rabbi Chaim of Brisk, was asked what the function of a rabbi is. He replied, "To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor (2)."
Rabbi Chaim’s father, Rabbi Joseph Dovber Soloveichik, known as the “Beis Halevi” was once sitting with his students when a man approached him with a strange question: "Is it permitted for me to drink milk instead of wine at the Passover Seder?"
"Are you forbidden to drink wine for health reasons?" the Rabbi asked. "No, it's just that wine is too expensive. I can't afford it."
Instead of answering the man's question, the Rabbi gave him twenty-five rubles. "Now you can have wine at your Seder," he said. After the man left, a student asked the Rabbi, "Why did you have to give him twenty-five rubles? Five would be more than enough to purchase the required amount of wine."
Rabbi Soloveichik answered, "If he intended to use milk at the Seder, that means he also doesn't have money for meat [Jewish law forbids having milk and meat at the same meal], and he probably also doesn't have money for the other items served at the Seder. I wanted to give him enough so that he could have a complete Seder."
Tzedaka, the Hebrew term meaning both charity and justice, is one of Judaism's most majestic and powerful pillars. The Talmud states (3): "Tzedaka is equal to all the other commandments combined." Rabbi Judah bar Ilai in the Talmud (4) put it dramatically:
Iron is strong, but fire melts it.
Fire is strong, but water extinguishes it.
Water is strong, but the clouds carry it.
The clouds are strong, but the wind drives them.
The wind is strong, but man withstands it.
Man is strong, but fear weakens him.
Fear is strong, but wine removes it.
Wine is strong, but sleep overcomes it.
Sleep is strong, but death stands over it.
What is stronger than death?
Acts of generosity, for it is written (5),
“Tzedaka delivers from death”.
The word tzedaka derives from the Hebrew word tzedek, "justice." From a Jewish perspective, to give to the needy is not only an act of kindness; it is an act of justice. Jewish tradition teaches that part of the wealth we own does not really belong to us (6); it is money that G-d entrusted to us that we are required to pass on to those in need. Thus, to withhold charity is considered a subtle form of theft (7).
Two forms of charity
There are two components of tzedaka. The first is offering financial assistance to someone in need. The second is ensuring that each person is granted the ability to enjoy a dignified existence.
This explains a rather strange law in Judaism. A community must provide a poor person not only with the means to live, but also with enough money to be able to give to others (8). Rationally this is difficult to comprehend. The money will be given to the poor anyway. Why give it to one poor man to give to another? Psychologically, however, it makes very good sense. Giving is an essential part of dignity. Judaism sees it as no less than a human need. That is why even those who have to receive also have to be able to give. The rabbinic insistence that the community provide the poor with enough money so that they themselves can give is a profound insight into the human condition: we each need to feel that we are needed. It is a desire to satisfy a transcendent yearning, to be like G-d who is not only a “receiver,” but also a “giver.” It is a craving that emanates from the depths of our souls (9).
How to treat a hospital patient
In 1986, a man named Shlomo Telushkin had a severe stroke. Until the day he fell ill, he worked full-time as an accountant. One of his clients was the Lubavitcher Rebbe. One day while Mr. Telushkin was still in the hospital, his son - the author Joseph Telushkin, received a call from the Rebbe’s secretary who had an accounting question he wished Joseph to pose to his father.
Joseph was puzzled by the request. It was only a few days since his father had regained consciousness, and he was still not fully himself. The Rebbe’s secretary explained that during a conversation among the Rebbe and his secretaries, an accounting question had come up. The Rebbe said, "Ask Shlomo Telushkin." When he was reminded how sick Shlomo was, the Rebbe repeated, "Ask Shlomo."
Of course, knowing that the question came from the Rebbe, Joseph went to his father's room and posed it to him. His father offered an immediate response; it turned out that the question was not difficult.
Reflecting on that incident Joseph Telushkin said: “What I realized at that moment was the Rebbe's brilliance and compassion. He knew how sick my father was, but also understood how important it was for my father, lying in a hospital bed, confused and half-paralyzed, to still feel productive.” The Rebbe’s aim was to grant dignity to an ill patient.
A sage once observed the two seas in Israel, the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. The Sea of Galilee is full of life, the Dead Sea has none. How could two seas, fed by a single source -- the River Jordan -- be so different? His answer: the Sea of Galilee receives water at one end and gives out water at the other. The Dead Sea receives water but does not give, and if you only receive but do not give, you do not live. In Judaism, giving is part of life itself.
Let’s get practical
The Lubavitcher Rebbe suggested that people place charity boxes in their homes, offices and childrens’ bedrooms. Into that box, people could drop coins or dollars on a daily basis. The Rebbe felt this would create a perpetual awareness of the need to give. A Charity box in a home or office redefines the space. It is no longer a home or an office. It is a sanctuary, a hub of kindness, a space in the world that reflects G-d and His will to give and grant life to all of us.
Our children will build a kinder world if they learn the importance of giving. Values are caught, not taught. They are communicated by what we do more than by what we say. Living charitably ourselves is the best way to ensure our children will be givers.
There is a beautiful Jewish custom that before Jewish mothers and girls kindle the Sabbath candles they place a few coins in the charity box. Giving habitually, rather than sporadically and impulsively, accustoms one to become more generous.
Footnotes: 1) Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim, 2a. 2) Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, Jewish Publications Society of America, 1983, 91. 2) Bava Batra 9b. 3) Bava Basra 9a. 4) Talmud ibid. 10a. 5) Proverbs 10:2. 6) See Likkutei Sichos vol. 30 Breishis 1, based on Talmud Bava Batra 10a. The Tur writes in his introduction to the Laws of Tzedakah (Yoreh Deah 247): Never allow your mind to entertain the perverse thought, ‘I can’t afford to give charity to others, it will diminish what I have for myself… the most precious part of your wealth is what you give to the poor, as it says (Isaiah 58:8): And your charity shall go before you [to your eternal reward]. 7) Cultivating sensitivity to justice and performing acts of justice is one of the most important obligations Judaism imposes on the Jew. "Tzedek, tzedek you shall pursue," the Bible instructs (Deuteronomy 16: 20). ((Albert Einstein once spoke of the “almost fanatical love of justice” as one of the “features of Jewish tradition which make me thank my stars I belong to it” (Albert Einstein, “Jewish Ideals,” in modern Jewish thought: A Source Reader, ed. Nahum Glatzer, Schocken Books, New York, 1977, 116). 8) Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, the abridged code of laws, section 34. 9) See the powerful words of Rashi to Talmud Bava Metzia 47a.