The Challenge Of Charity


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:31 p.m.
Torah: Deut. 11:26-16:17;
Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24
Havdalah: 8:34 p.m.     

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote: “Tzedakah [charity] lies at the heart of Judaism’s understanding of mitzvot bein adam le-chavero, interpersonal duties. An idea going back 4,000 years, it remains challenging today.” Given the state of today’s economy, it is more challenging than ever.

Parshat Re’eh, discusses the obligation to sustain the poor. “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your Land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be” [Deuteronomy 15:7-8].

Here we are given two commandments, one negative and one positive. Whereas the positive command is focused on the poor, the negative commandment focuses on the giver. The negative commandment has two components: not hardening the heart and not shutting the hand. We must overcome our natural instinct to hold on to what is ours, and instead give to the needy. Rashi explains that there are two parts to overcoming our desire. Even after the initial decision, when one is already in the process of giving, a person might have second thoughts. Keep going, the Torah is telling us. Don’t change your mind.

But what if we were able to create a society where the natural tendency was not to keep but to give? Is this possible?

The Torah commands, “You shall surely tithe all the produce from what you sow, which comes out of the field every year” [Deut. 14:22]. The Hebrew that is translated as “You shall surely tithe” is “Aser Te’Aser.” Here the verb is repeated twice for emphasis. The Talmud explains [Taanit 9a] that what the Torah means is “Aser bishvil shetitasher,” tithe so that you will become wealthy. (Aser with the letter “sin” is tithe, but Asher with the letter “shin” means rich). The Talmud goes so far as to say that one should tithe his field in order to challenge God to give him wealth. Are we really permitted to do a mitzvah so that we can become wealthy, or to test God?

The Chatam Sofer writes that the natural tendency of a person to keep his money is so strong that the Torah in these verses speaks “against the Yetzer Hara (evil urge)” and promises wealth for those who give. According to this interpretation, it seems that the Torah believes that this natural predisposition is very difficult to overcome.

How can the Yetzer Hara urging us to hold onto our money be overcome?  By people experiencing “simchat ha’netina,” the joy of giving. Judaism gave birth to the powerful idea that “it is better to give than to receive.” The best expression is perhaps that of Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah, where he teaches that it is preferable for a person to be more liberal with his donations to the poor than to be lavish in his preparation of the Purim feast, or the sending of shalach manot to his friends, “for there  is no greater and more splendid happiness than to gladden the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the converts.”

A famous story is told about Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the first rebbe of Lubavitch. He succeeds in getting a miser to give thousands of rubles to redeem Jewish captives. No other “fund raiser” had ever succeeded in getting more than an old copper coin from this man. The rebbe succeeded because whereas everyone else complained upon receiving only one coin and asked for more, the rebbe graciously accepted the meager gift. The rebbe said, “That man is no miser. No Jewish soul truly is. But how could he desire to give if he never in his life experienced the joy of giving? Everyone to whom he gave that rusty penny of his threw it back in his face.”

Tzedakah is challenging today for many reasons, but the far greater challenge is that we, as Jews, must forge ahead with one of life’s greatest lessons to achieve a noble life.

Rabbi David Fine is the co-founder and dean of the Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics in Modiin, Israel, which will launch its inaugural class in September.