Image: Stacks of coins that appear to be sprouting seedlings. (Pixabay)
On June 21 I had the pleasure of returning to Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, NV, the first congregation I served as a new rabbi, right out of school. Rabbi Sanford Akselrad was kind enough to invite me to preach.
I talked about a topic dear to me: the mitzvah of tzedakah. The title of the sermon was “Tzedakah for Healing and Empowerment.” Since I generally preach from an outline rather than a full text, to keep my words and delivery fresh, I can’t reproduce the sermon here. However, I can give you the gist of it.
We usually talk about mitzvot as commandments or sacred duties: something we do. However, there is another angle from which too see mitzvot. Mitzvot are actions we take that also cause change within us.
Notice the blessings we say before performing a mitzvah:
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who sanctifies us with mitzvot, and has commanded us to immerse ourselves in the words of Torah.
— Blessing before the Study of Torah
Before a mitzvah, when we say this blessing, we say that God makes us holy through our performance of the mitzvah. That is quite a claim.
So how does this work?
Take tzedakah, for instance: we normally think of it as our sacred duty to give money for justice or for the relief of suffering. We might think that tzedakah is all about the other person.
But it is also a powerful tool for human spiritual development. Let me explain with a story.
I have a little dog, Gabi. She does not particularly like potato chips, but if we have them, she manages to get one. She grabs a chip and runs a little distance off, hovering over the chip. If any other dog approaches, she growls. If I tell her to drop it, she will very grudgingly give it to me. As long as she has the chip she will not eat it, instead guarding it no matter what other fun thing might be going on.
In short, she makes herself miserable guarding that chip.
Look at the word “miserable.” What do the first five letters spell?
Tzedakah is the sacred duty to give money to a suffering human being, or to an agent who will help suffering beings. It is also a powerful antidote to miserliness, the misery that comes from hanging on too tightly to money.
When we give tzedakah, we remind ourselves that we actually have ENOUGH, enough that we can give away a bit. How much we give depends on our means. Jewish tradition teaches us not to give so much that we endanger ourselves. No, we are only commanded to give a little.
Giving that little bit will remind us that we have more power than we realize. One little tzedakah payment may be small, but when it combines with others, it transforms lives. It can save a person from starving to death. It can pay legal fees to free a prisoner. It can pay tuition so a person can learn and eventually support themselves.
That is POWER.
When we give tzedakah in its higher forms, when we give anonymously, we can fight back against our need for attention and approval. Maimonides teaches us that the mitzvah is fulfilled even if we give a tiny amount, grudgingly, and demand big thanks and a brass nameplate. But it is much more meritorious, he tells us, to give anonymously and to do so without public recognition. That kind of giving trains us away from narcissism. When we give quietly, we cultivate a true humility and become a better person.
So there it is: tzedakah may be the mitzvah of giving, but we still can receive much in return. As the blessing says, God gave us mitzvot to make us holy, to make us better people. In the case of tzedakah, it can take something that can be the source of tremendous stress and anxiety, and transform it into goodness in the world and in ourselves.