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Giving Charity on Broadway, Or Not? #444

07/12/2016 07:12:00 PM

Jul12

Giving Charity on Broadway, Or Not? #444

The Charity Dilemma.
 
Years ago, about 9 pm on a particularly cold February night, we heard the doorbell ring at our home in Edmonton. I opened the door to find a middle-aged couple standing on our welcome mat with a pile of packets and brochures in their arms.
 
"We're representing the Diabetes Association," the woman said, her breath a white fog. "Could you please support us with a donation?"
 
"Come in," I replied, as they stepped into our foyer. "I'll be right back."
 
As I returned with my pen and checkbook, I noticed the man looking up at our doorpost. As I handed a contribution to the couple, he turned, nodding to his wife, and said, "See, I told you. Every time we go to a house with one of those little gold boxes up there, we always leave with a donation."
 
I admit I smiled as I watched them trudge down our driveway to the next house. This told me that a number of fellow Jews in the neighborhood had also contributed.
 
Of course, it wasn't only Jewish people who supported the Diabetes Association on that frigid night, but it did confirm that, in the minds of the canvassers, the Mezuzah was synonymous with Judaism, and so Judaism was synonymous with the giving of charity.
 
To be clear, all religions preach and practice charity. Few, perhaps, take charity as seriously as Judaism does. For us, Tzedakah is not an option. It is a commandment.
 
Maimonides, the great rabbi, physician, and philosopher, taught us more than eight hundred years ago: "We are obligated to be more scrupulous in fulfilling the commandment of Tzedakah than any other positive commandment, because Tzedakah is the sign of the righteous person."
 
Recently, our daughter Sarah completed her doctoral degree at the University of Cambridge, which examined the Jewish community's return to England in the seventeenth century after nearly four hundred years of exile. 

One of the first acts performed by the returning Jewish community was the establishment of a society for Gimilut Chasadim (acts of loving-kindness).
 
Maimonides also noted, "We have never seen or heard about a Jewish community which does not have a charity fund." (Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 9:3)
 
Many scholars have argued that the Jewish focus on Tzedakahoriginates from this and last week's Torah portions. As we complete the reading of the Book of Shmot (Exodus), we observe a massive community effort to establish and sustain Jewish institutions, and to help support the needy.
 
To be clear, Judaism recognizes differences in economic status. It notes that there will always be rich and poor among us. Often, due to illness or other circumstances out of their control, there will always be some along us who require an extra measure of Tzedek. 

This word Tzedek, justice, rests at the core of the concept of Tzedakah.
 
It is interesting that in our Torah reading, in the aftermath of the "sin of the golden calf," the children of Israel stepped up and contributed money, skill, and labor towards construction of the travelling sanctuary which would house the Ten Commandments en route to the land of Israel.
 
The people gave so much that Aaron and Moses finally had to place a cap on the community's generosity. Whether it was the golden calf or the holy sanctuary, Jews appeared willing to dig deep in pursuit of spiritual meaning.
 
As retired chief Rabbi of England Jonathan Sacks once said, "Jews may not always make the right choices in what they give to, but they give."
 
These days I hear a multitude of reasons to refuse to support local, regional, national, and world causes. Too much money, many say, goes towards administrative costs. Often, we fear that someone publicly asking for charity may use our spare change to purchase drugs or alcohol. Many question why those asking for money on the streets off Broadway frequently have a package of cigarettes in their pocket, or a dog by their side.
But as Avrum Rosensweig, who heads V'ahavta a Canadian Jewish homeless initiative, asked at a lecture I attended last Sunday in Toronto, "If you had to sleep in the streets, how would you numb the pain?"
The Talmud tells us that when someone asks for food, it is not permitted to refuse, because if we are wrong, the person who requests assistance may perish.
 
That is why, as I was taught by my parents and grandparents, and by many great rabbis, I tend to carry some change or a few dollar bills in my pocket when I travel into the city and venture onto Broadway.  
 
A great rabbi once said that, when we close our hand to the poor, or to communal causes, we project our own cynicism on the world.
 
Rabbi Shmeilki of Nicholsburg (1776-1778) wrote, "When a poor man asks you for aid, do not use his faults as an excuse for not helping him. For then God will look for your offenses, and God is sure to find many of them."
 
Indeed, providing charity to those on the street is not possible or preferable for everyone. Many feel vulnerable when they stop and pull out their wallets. Many pursue other avenues of support.
 
Yet, our Torah reminds us, particularly this week that the giving of charity is ingrained in our DNA. Each of us is challenged to find a way to give which is meaningful to us, thus enabling us, in partnership with God, to help heal this broken world.
 
While we may not be able to heal the world on our own, the Talmud teaches that we are not permitted to walk away from the task.
 
There may come a time when, like Moses and Aaron, those in need will be elevated, and will say "enough." When that day comes, there will be no homeless on our streets, or envelopes arriving in the mail, or those who are required to step out in sub-freezing weather to perform God's work.
 
Until then, let us give from the heart - each in our own way. 
There will be mistakes and bad choices made, but that does not permit us to completely close our hands.
 
It is not so much the amount that we give, but the effort and the mindset. We must also teach our children and grandchildren that it is Tzedakah, justice - not rules and restrictions - which rests at the heart of Judaism.  We must also enhance our focus on Social Justice within synagogues and other institutions. 
 
One quarter, one dollar bill at a time, we possess the ability to change the life of a fellow human being. 

Indeed, each of us at some point in our lives has ached for a little more food, or another dollar in our pocket.
 
Let us never forget where we came from, and even at the risk of erring along the way, contribute what we can to make the world a better, more just place.
 
Ken Yehi Ratzon, may this be God's will.
 
For this and many other Mitzvoth, are within our power.
 
Shabbat shalom, v'kol tuv (with all goodness)

Rabbi Irwin Huberman 

Sat, August 8 2020 18 Av 5780