“Giving Charity Kindly and Generously”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, we find particular emphasis on performing acts of kindness, generosity and charity.

While charity is regarded today by most enlightened societies as a positive value, in ancient societies charity was not always acknowledged as a universal good or rational act. Even today, in some contemporary settings, it is still regarded as a questionable value.

For instance, traditional Calvinists do not look upon charity favorably since they believe that one may not interfere with G-d’s will. In fact, helping a person who is poor or widowed or orphaned may be seen as defying G-d’s will. Perhaps their unfortunate situation is intended by G-d to serve as a punishment for sinful deeds, or to strengthen them through the challenge of poverty, widowhood, or being an orphan.

Judaism rejects that kind of thinking and declares that all poor and needy people who ask for help must be responded to immediately. Only G-d may decide whether those in need are deserving of help or not. Those who are asked for help must assume that all mendicants are entirely deserving.

Judaism also has a unique view regarding the attitude of the charity donor. Many religionists assume that all good deeds must be performed with a full and sincere heart. Judaism submits that helping the needy is the primary concern–philosophizing and rationalization can come later. Therefore one is expected to give, even without a full heart, but give.

The Torah was actually the first documented source to introduce the concept of charity to humankind. Deuteronomy 15:7-8, boldly declares, כִּי יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ, בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר השם אֱ-לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ, לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת יָדְךָ מֵאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן. כִּי פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לוֹ, וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לו, If there shall be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities in the land the L-rd your G-d gives you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother. Rather, you shall open your hand to him; you shall lend him his requirement, whatever is lacking to him.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 14:22, when discussing the issue of tithes, states, עַשֵּׂר תְּעַשֵּׂר אֵת כָּל תְּבוּאַת זַרְעֶךָ, You shall surely tithe all the produce of your seed. The rabbis (Talmud, Taanit 9a) deduce, utilizing a play on words, עַשֵּׂר בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁתִּתֽעַשֵּׁר, give tithes in order to become rich. The rabbis further state that charity is the only mitzvah in which there is a guarantee of Divine compensation. Says the prophet (Malachi 3:10), וּבְחָנוּנִי נָא בָּזֹאת, “Test me in this,” G-d declares, that if you give charity, G-d will be certain to reward the donor’s benevolence.

The Abarbanel notes that a person who gives charity is not really giving of his own wherewithal. The donated funds actually belong to G-d; the Jew is merely a caretaker of those funds, serving as G-d’s “banker” on earth. The banker who fails to fulfill G-d’s wishes will lose the deposit. G-d will withdraw the bounty, and bestow it elsewhere.

The Abarbanel further states that charity also serves as a test of one’s faith. A person may assume, incorrectly, that the more charity he dispenses, the less he will have. However, G-d promises just the opposite. Besides, says the Abarbanel, one never knows when the wheel of fortune will turn, and the person with funds today will find himself in need of sustenance from others tomorrow.

Rashi notes that the words in the verse “a destitute person …any of your brethren in any of your cities in the land,” points to a particular priority to be followed when dispensing charity. Those to be cared for first are the totally “destitute,” who are desperately poor. The words “your brethren,” teach that the closer the relative, the greater the obligation. The words “in any of your cities,” imply that the poor of your own city come before those of other cities. Finally, from the words, “in the land,” we affirm that the poor of the land of Israel come before those of other lands.

The Hebrew word צְדָקָה, “tzedakah” literally means righteousness, not charity, implying that sustaining others is not to be construed as an act of kindness, but rather as the correct thing to do.

Another unique insight of Judaism is that beyond the financial support, meaningful charity involves taking into consideration the personal and emotional needs of the destitute person. Consequently, the Code of Jewish Law (Yoreh Deah 250:1) suggests that a formerly wealthy person needs to be sustained according to his particular (even extravagant) needs. Therefore, those who are accustomed to being driven around in a chauffeured limousine must be helped to maintain their dignity and self esteem.

Several years ago, I heard a moving story about Mr. Charles Smith who owned a wholesale vegetable business on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1940s and 1950s. In order to have enough time to prepare properly for the Shabbat, he would always make certain to close his business by noon on Friday, no matter how many orders were still waiting.

After closing for Shabbat, the first thing Mr. Smith did was to call Yeshiva Torah Va’Daath, which was, at the time, located in Williamsburg, to make certain that all faculty members had been paid for the week. If they had not been paid, he would cross the Williamsburg Bridge himself and make certain that everyone was paid before the weekend.

Because he was a wholesaler, he usually had a lot of cash with him. When approached by a poor person on the street who asked for help, he would quickly reach into his pocket and take out a wad of bills, turn and look the other way, and say to the needy person to take as much as he needed.

The author of the Sefer Hachinuch insists that Jews are רַחֲמָנִים בְּנֵי רַחֲמָנִים, the children and grandchildren of naturally merciful people, who are proud to share the mitzvah of charity with the world.

The revolutionary concept of charity is one of the greatest of G-d’s gifts to humanity.

May you be blessed.