As I am writing this at the end of December, both my email inbox and my physical mailbox are overflowing with requests for donations. I am always puzzled by these appeals to make last-minute donations for the benefit of a tax deduction. I have never understood why we need extra incentive to give.
In Jewish tradition, tzedakah is not a “nice thing to do,” or something to do for a break on taxes. Tzedakah is valued so highly that even those who receive tzedakah are expected to give to others. In the 14th century law code Arba’ah Turim, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher goes so far as to say, “It is a positive commandment to give tzedakah.” Where does he get this from? There is no place in the Torah that says “Thou shalt give tzedakah.” But we are told that we must leave the corners of our fields for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger — in other words, the most vulnerable, neediest members of ancient Israelite society. The message is clear and still relevant: If you are fortunate to have enough for your own needs, you cannot keep it all for yourself. You must give some to others.
In this time of global pandemic, when so many have lost jobs and are unable to pay for rent, food, and medical expenses, and when so many businesses, arts organizations, and nonprofits are struggling to survive, the requests for donations are more urgent and more numerous than ever. The needs are great.
Even in a mostly affluent community like Summit, the local food pantry has gone from serving approximately 100 people per week to providing food for more than 500 people each week. Members of the Summit Interfaith Council have established a covid relief fund for undocumented residents, many of whom have lost their jobs and are not eligible for government assistance. The council also is raising money for emergency housing for homeless residents of Summit, so they can stay in a local motel on cold winter nights. In the past, houses of worship provided free emergency shelter, but due to covid restrictions, that solution will not be possible this winter. In one ordinary New Jersey town, there is an urgent, ongoing need to raise thousands of dollars each month simply to fulfill the basic human needs of food and shelter. These needs are not confined to Giving Tuesday or end of the year appeals. As Jews, we are commanded to help, not once or twice, but consistently and regularly.
With so many pressing needs, it sometimes feels overwhelming to determine how much to give and where to donate. We can find guidance in the meaning of the word tzedakah. Usually translated as “charity,” tzedakah comes from the same root as tzedek, meaning justice. Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips, editor of a book called “Generous Justice,” translates tzedakah as “just giving.” This translation offers a beautiful double meaning — we should just give, no question about it, no excuses, just give. And we should also give justly — what we give should create more justice in our world.
Long ago, Maimonides recognized that any tzedakah is better than none, but there are ways of giving that are more beneficial and effective than others. Acts of chesed — of loving kindness — are important. If people are hungry, they need food; if people are homeless, they need shelter. But we cannot stop there. Richard Uniacke, the executive director of Bridges, an organization that serves the homeless, says, “Passing out bag lunches is essential, but it is just a first step. We have to create a movement of people who are unwilling to accept homelessness as a way of life, people who are committed to working and donating to efforts at systemic change.”
During the Days of Awe, we recite the words u’tefillah u’teshuvah u’zedakah ma’avirin let roah ha gezerah — repentance, prayer, and tzedakah cause the evil decree to pass away. Now, as we enter a secular new year, we do not need to wait for Yom Kippur or the end of 2021 to reflect on giving. We can start now by asking ourselves: How much do we really need for our own needs? How much can we afford to give away? How can our giving reflect our values? What organizations will increase justice? How can our tzedakah transform evil in our world into something better?
As we attempt to answer these questions, we must remember that we are commanded to give tzedakah. We are commanded to give justly and to just give.
Hannah Orden is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit. She is now the president of the Summit Interfaith Council and is a founding member of the council’s anti-racism committee.