Giving tzedakah is a sacred duty

By Rivkah Slonim

Editor’s note: Following are the remarks Rivkah Slonim gave at the Jewish Federation’s Campaign kick-off brunch on September 18. 

The recent death of the Queen brought to mind a lovely story about the great Victorian Anglo-Jew, Sir Moses Montefiore that is seminal to our gathering today. Montefiore was one of the outstanding figures of the 19th century. A close friend of Queen Victoria and knighted by her, he became the first Jew to attain high office in the city of London. His philanthropy extended to both Jews and non-Jews, and on his 100th birthday, The London Times devoted editorials to his praise. “He had shown,” said the Times, “that fervent Judaism and patriotic citizenship are absolutely consistent with one another.”

One reflection was particularly moving: Someone once asked him, “Sir Moses, what are you worth?” Moses thought for a while and named a figure. “But surely,” said his questioner, “your wealth must be much more than that.” With a smile, Sir Moses replied, “You didn’t ask me how much I own. You asked me how much I am worth. So I calculated how much I have given to charity this year.”

I want to talk with you this morning about charity but I want to focus on the Hebrew word, which is tzedakah, because charity and tzedakah mean two different things.

But first, let’s take a step back and look at two radically different perspectives on wealth:
The first, that wealth, whether earned or inherited, is that individual’s wealth. What they choose to do with it is completely up to them. There will always be a disparity in how much people have due to a confluence of various factors and luck. If a person chooses to give of their wealth or assets to those in need, it is praiseworthy; an unexpected act of generosity.

The second view contends that the uneven distribution of resources is a calamity that has to be righted. Those who have more than their fair share are obligated to share their wealth; if they do not, they are guilty of perpetuating an injustice. Following this line of reason to its logical conclusion will lead to some kind of state-sponsored socialism or restrictive measures like earning caps to enforce an equitable socio-economic model.

And then there is the Jewish notion of tzedakah, which essentially rejects both of these views. Unlike charity, which is derived from the Latin word carus, to be kind and endearing, tzedakah is etymologically rooted in the word tzedek, which means justice, to be just, a value the Torah bids us to pursue.

In fact, author Paul Vallely, who wrote “Philanthropy: From Aristotle to Zuckerberg,” writes: “For the Greeks and Romans, philanthropia was always a voluntary and self serving activity among the elite; by contrast, tzedakah is a religious obligation that falls proportionally on both the rich and those with smaller incomes.”

Tzedakah was never enforced by the government or any other entity for that matter, but is rather internally driven by Jewish values.

The Talmud records that the Roman consul Turnus Rufus questioned Rabbi Akiva about Judaism’s mandate to give to the poor: “If your God loves the poor, why does He not support them Himself?”

In Roman thought, the division of class was inevitable, even essential, and was intended to stay that way. Thank goodness we have as a world society come a long way from that gestalt; it is common for us to view ourselves as duty bound to give to the needy and this is in no small measure yet another Jewish value that has seeped into the wider thoroughfare of ideas.
Judaism positively insists that we give a certain percentage to tzedakah because it’s not ours in the first place. Jewish law bids us to give 10 percent of what we own to tzedakah. It is somewhat like serving family style. When bringing a platter to the table it is understood that people will take what they need and pass the rest to others.

Tzedakah, righteousness, reminds us not to get caught up in a smug feeling of magnanimity or hubris, but to remember that giving of our resources is simply our duty. Giving tzedakah should elicit gratitude, humility and appreciation that we have been allocated and trusted with the assets to disburse. The assets we own are entrusted to us, deposited by the Almighty given on condition that it be used properly.Simply put: giving tzedakah is our sacred duty.

I just heard Rabbi Lord David Wolfson eulogize the queen and her spectacular sense of duty in London’s House of Lords. Among other things, he spoke of her sense of duty and shared that the numerical value of the biblical word tzav, which means command, is 96, the number of years Queen Elizabeth lived.

There is a well-known joke about a father who met the young man who was asking for his daughter’s hand. How do you intend to take care of my daughter, he asked the young man. God will provide, he replied. You do plan to have a family? Yes, confirmed the young man. How will you provide for my grandchildren? God will provide, came the quick reply. It costs a lot of money to raise children, you know, he pressed on. God will provide, the young man firmly stated. When his wife asked how the meeting went and what his impression was, the girl’s father summed it up quickly: Lackluster at best, but he thinks highly of me. In fact, he thinks I am God! 

The founder of the Chasidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov, taught that a lesson could be taken from every person, from every situation, from every encounter. And what, pressed his students, can be learned from the atheist, the one who denies the Creator? Ah, said the Baal Shem Tov, remember the atheist the next time you encounter someone in need. Don’t say God will help her or him. You must rather act as if there is no God and do all that you can to help this person!

We have gathered this morning. Believers, atheists, agnostics, observant, observant not at all, because we believe in the notion of tzedakah. Ours is a community built on that value. When we give to the Federation, the umbrella organization dedicated to sustaining our community, we give to ourselves. We give toward our present and toward our future.

It’s a fascinating thing that in biblical Hebrew a pauper is called an ani and poverty is termed aniyut, which is etymologically rooted in the term l’anot, to answer. Because the Torah is teaching us that when we see a person in need, it is our mandate to answer than need. May we all embrace the privilege of heeding the cry and responding to the best of our ability.

I wish us all a shanah tovah, a good year and blessed year, a year in which we are all privileged to give rather than to take, to bestow rather than to receive, to grant, to confer, to bequeath in good health and with gladness of heart, Amen.