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Tzedakah: What Does it Really Mean? #742

09/02/2022 06:13:32 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Shoftim "Justice justice shall you pursue." Deuteronomy 16:20

Tzedakah: What Does it Really Mean?


There is a story about Jack Ain, one of our past presidents, who years ago - at the end of weekday services - would collect money from those present.

After services, a stream of financially challenged local residents – some homeless – would often appear at the synagogue door, and he and the other congregants would discreetly disburse the funds.

One day, one of the regular attendees showed up to services without his wallet. Jack looked the congregant up and down disapprovingly, and said:

“This is how it works around here. Either you put money into the pishka (charity jar), or you take money out. There is no middle ground.”

Perhaps Jack’s bluntness was a bit harsh, but there was a message: Tzedakah is central to who we are as Jews. If you are not giving, then you must be in need.

Within today’s Jewish world, the term tzedakah is usually associated with the word charity. But that is not entirely correct.

More accurately, the concept of tzedakah is an extension of its root word tzedek which means “justice” or “righteous behavior.”

Within Jewish tradition, support for those in need is more than an act of generosity. It is a requirement.

In this week’s Torah portion, as Moses continues his final instructions to the Israelites, the issue of “justice” is raised.

Moses instructs the shoftim - judges - to interpret the law fairly and equitably. Judges should never take bribes and should ensure that neither rich nor poor are favored or disadvantaged.

Says the TorahTzedek, tzedek tirdoff.  “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”

For centuries, sages have debated why the word tzedek – justice – is written twice.

And they conclude that the concept of justice is so central to Jewish life – and the temptation to bend the law according to status of wealth is so seductive – that the word needed to be repeated.

Although the Torah notes that there will always be rich and poor amongst us, it expresses a lack of tolerance for extreme poverty, hunger or homelessness.

While this week’s parashah is primarily directed at Israel’s magistrates, there is a broader connection with the concept of tzedakah, and that affects us all.

According to High Holiday theology, tzedakah is one way we can reverse a bad decree against us. For by assisting someone in need, we can actually change the course of their life – and potentially the world. 

Biblical prophets would often chastise the Israelites for neglecting or exploiting those in need. Ancient rabbis praised tzedakah, calling it “equal in value to all the other commandments combined.”

About 15 years ago, when our congregation visited Israel for the first time, several beggars descended upon tour members as we approached the Western Wall to pray.

Those of you who have visited Jerusalem will agree that the practice is irritating and distracting.

Yet as one mentor would later reflect, the beggars at the Wall should in some way be praised – for they facilitate the mitzvah of tzedakah.

They remind us - in our euphoria as visitors to Israel - that there are real people living in the area, who need support.

Some will disagree with that interpretation but let us agree that just as we strive to attain balance in so many areas of life, so, too, do we struggle with the idea of supporting those in need.

Are we enabling or are we helping?

Are we practicing justice or succumbing to cynicism?

How interesting that justice, justice shall you pursue is an active commandment, reminding us that justice is a pursuit – a destination.

To this day, some farmers in Israel, according to biblical law, leave the corners of their fields for those in need. The Israel Food Bank arrives daily, powered by tourists and other volunteers, who make it possible to feed thousands in need each day.

For centuries, communities have solicited funds during the height of the High Holidays to, in part, fill up the community chest so that adequate resources are available throughout the year for those in need.

It is that practice that forms the basis of the traditoinal Yom Kippur appeal.

During her doctoral work on the 1655 return of the Jews to England, our daughter, Sarah, noted in the minutes of the first returning Jewish community, that one of the first orders of business was to establish a society for gimilut chasadim, “acts of lovingkindness.”

This week’s Torah portion inspires us to consider how we can best achieve in our lives tzedek - justice. And one answer is through the practice of tzedakah.  

As we will read on Yom Kippur – according to the Book of Isaiah – fasting and introspection are important, but they are meaningless, if we fail to “feed the hungry, take in the homeless, and clothe the naked.”

Throughout our history, we have experienced hunger, isolation and homelessness. Who more than the Jewish people can understand the importance of rebalancing the world?

But in our giving, let us never forget that the root word of tzedakah is tzedek.

Are we giving back enough? Or in the words of that past president, z"l, are we supporting stagnation – and, therefore, taking?

According to Jewish tradition, there is little middle ground in the pursuit of justice. By nature, we are a nation of givers. We help rebalance the world every day by considering the tzedek component of tzedakah.

And in so doing, we bring justice, justice to the world.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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