“The Extraordinary Mitzvah of Tzedaka, Charity”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

Once again, this week, we read two combined parashiot Behar-Bechukotai. In the first of this coming week’s parashiot, parashat Behar, we read in Leviticus 25:35, “V’chee ya’mooch ah’chee’cha, u’mah’tah ya’do ee’mach, v’heh’cheh’zak’tah bo.” And if your brother becomes impoverished, (literally, crushed) and his means falters in your proximity, you shall strengthen him. This verse teaches the unambiguous positive mitzvah to help the poor, and especially to help them before they become destitute, when it becomes so much more difficult to help them.

Rashi (1040-1105), in his commentary, says that the situation with helping the poor may be compared to a load on an animal that has begun to slip from the animal’s back. As long as the load is still on the animal, a single person can adjust it and keep the animal from falling. But once the animal has fallen, even five people cannot get it back on its feet.

As many of you know, the word tzedakah, does not mean charity, but rather justice and righteousness. It is not an act of charity to be generous, it is the correct thing to do. That it why parashat Behar is so full of statements encouraging Jews to help the poor.

Many years ago I learned a profound lesson about charity when I attended the wedding of one of my students, whose family was part of the Mir community in Brooklyn. Many members of this community had escaped the Nazis by fleeing to Shanghai, and relocating to Israel and America.

Although the groom’s father was a prosperous caterer, and could have chosen to schedule the wedding in any of the fanciest New York City ballrooms, he chose to have his simcha in the Gruss Educational Center, which was at that time a relatively new High School building in the heart of Boro Park.

Because the wedding was held on Tuesday night (the day that the Torah in Genesis says is “doubly blessed”), I arrived late, after teaching my Tuesday night class. It was a wintry night and the guests were just filing out of the gymnasium, which was off the main lobby, where the chupah was held. The main lobby was terribly crowded, and I had difficulty finding a hanger for my coat. As soon as I hung up my coat, a hand, a shaking hand, was thrust in to my face, below my nose. I looked up and saw that it was the hand of a poor person asking for charity. I took out a nickel, a dime or a quarter, from my pocket and gave it to the poor fellow. Before I even had a chance to move, another hand was in my face, and another, and another. I looked around and saw that the whole lobby was swarming with poor people who were begging for money. I thought it odd. But what was more unusual was that I seemed to be the only one who was giving coins, everyone else was giving the poor people dollars! I duly noted the unusual generosity, and proceeded downstairs to the dining room.

The dining room, which was the High School dining room, of course, had a heigh ceiling, and a large elegant chandelier in the center. I noticed that on either side of the ballroom were two elegantly appointed tables. Seated at these tables were the poor people–on one side the men, on the other side the women. Many of the needy people were dressed in shabby and tattered clothes. Some even had their shopping bags lying near them. It was not a pleasant sight to behold. The host however felt that his family could not celebrate a simcha, a joyous occasion, without inviting the poor, who were to be given an honored place at the celebration. I was duly impressed, but the best was yet to come.

I proceeded to my table. It was an all mens table, and I knew not a soul. After the first course, a young man stood up and announced to those present, “My name is so and so, I have taken upon myself to support a poor family in Jerusalem, and I expect you to help!” He did not say “I hope you will help.” I thought it was odd, but I realized that I was dealing with quite a different culture.

Trying desperately to fit in to this unusual subculture of Jews, I took out my wallet and pulled out a crispy $5 bill, waved it in front of everybody so they could all see how generous I was, and gave it to the young man. Nobody gave less than $20, except for me! I was flabbergasted.

After the next course of food, a group of young men came down dressed in pink rabbit uniforms, and performed a dance. After the dance, the young people circulated throughout the hall, going from table to table giving out little cards, which read, “We are students of the Mir Yeshiva. In the month of Adar, which precedes Passover, we go to all joyous occasions to collect Maot Chittim, money for wine and matzot, for the poor for Passover.” Again, there was an enormous outpouring.

I had been to charitable events before, but I was stunned by this unprecedented generosity. And it impacted on my own perception of giving.

There is one thing worse than being on a Mafia hit list. When the Mafia comes to get you, they shoot you in the head, put on you their proverbial concrete boots, and toss you into the river. In most instances, the pain is brief, the suffering, only for an instant. However, if you are on the charity collectors’ hit list, the pain is constant and unending.

I live on the Upper West Side in a “fancy” doorman building. My doorman is a very nervous type. When he sees the men with the beards coming, he gets frazzled. “The fuzzies are coming! The fuzzies are coming!” he screams. They usually come en masse, 3 or 4 at a time. They traipse in to your home, at the least opportune time, when you’re about to put the children to sleep, or in the midst of an important conversation, or studying Torah. There doesn’t seem to be a truly opportune time for them to come.

The collectors come armed with documents, showing how vital their needs. They may even come with cancelled checks from previous years to prove that you gave a larger amount last year than you intend to give this year. It’s not easy.

Some of these collectors are not even honest. They alter checks from $18 to $180, and some of them are not even collecting for the cause for which they claim to be collecting. (Today many collectors come with certificates to verify that they are indeed honest, which is a great improvement over the past.)

After my experience with the Mir wedding, I tried to be more sensitive with my charity. I spoke to my family, and we decided that when the poor come to collect, we will treat them kindly, ask them to sit down, offer them a glass of water, a fruit, a piece of cake. Ask them about their cause, and their needs.

My wife and I felt that it was important to have the children involved in giving the money, so that they can learn to be charitable. Several times during the year when we write out large numbers of checks in response to the many envelopes we receive, we sit down as a family and try to decide how much to give, and to which causes to give, in order to involve the children. It doesn’t happen by osmosis. We even have a so-called “homeless person” who comes to our home every Wednesday night and stays until the wee hours of the morning, eating, reading, using the computer, listening to tapes, etc. Although having him in our home is not always easy or convenient, it has had a profound impact on our lives. After all, this is exactly what our parasha said (Leviticus 25:35), “V’chee ya’mooch ah’chee’cha,” And if your brother will be crushed, “V’heh’cheh’zak’tah bo, strengthen him, raise him up!

It is this sensitivity that is implied by the very beautiful and subtle verse that Jews read every Friday night in the Ode to the Woman of Valor, Ayshet Chayil, from Proverbs 31:20: “Kah’pah par’sah l’ah’nee, v’yah’deh’hah shil’cha la’ev’yon.” The Woman of Valor opens her palm to the poor and sends forth her hand to the needy. When a poor person approaches the Woman of Valor, she opens her palm-her pocket and her pocketbook. But when she beholds a truly needy person, one who is languishing, she does not wait–she extends her hand.

May the People of Israel become so charitable that the Al-mighty will be forced to banish need and deprivation from all of Humankind.

May you be blessed.