Don’t Forget This Mitzvah before Pesach!

Image: A box for collecting tzedakah funds.

It is a Jewish tradition of long standing to give tzedakah (funds for the relief of suffering and need) before holidays and celebrations. We are approaching one of the greatest holidays of the Jewish year, Passover. In the rush to be ready, don’t forget to give so that the discomforts of others may be less on the holy days.

I’ve been working on a long piece about tzedakah, and as often happens there are texts that I love but cannot use in that particular paper. I thought I’d share them here for your enjoyment and perusal, because darnit, I like them so much!

“What goes around, comes around”:

R. Hiyya advised his wife, “When a poor man come to the door, give him food so that the same may be done to your children.” She exclaimed, “You are cursing them (by suggesting that they may become beggars)! But R. Hiyya replied, “There is a wheel which revolves in this world.” – Shabbat 151b

About fakers and frauds:

Rabbi Chayim of Sanz had this to say about fraudulent charity collectors: “The merit of charity is so great that I am happy to give to 100 beggars even if only one might actually be needy. Some people, however, act as if they are exempt from giving charity to 100 beggars in the event that one might be a fraud.” – Darkai Chayim (1962). 137

A warning against “compassion fatigue”:

R. Joshua b. Korkha said, “Anyone who shuts his eye against tzedakah is like one who
worships idols.” – Ketubot 68a

Do you have a favorite text about the mitzvah of tzedakah?

 

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Tzedakah, Loans, and Human Dignity

Image: Three stacks of coins, with seedlings sprouting from the tops. (nattanan23/Pixabay)

If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them like a creditor; exact no interest from them. – Exodus 22:24

This verse in Parashat Mishpatim [Laws] establishes the top of Maimonides’ famous ladder of giving tzedakah: it begins im talveh (“if you lend”), not im noteh (“if you give”). Why is lending the preferred form of assisting the needy? And why, if that is the case, must there be no interest charged?

In the 11th century, Rabbeinu Bachya affirmed the teaching of Maimonides, and explained, “The loan is greater than the gift because it strengthens the recipient and he need not be ashamed of it.” He then quoted Shemot Rabbah 31:15:

When you lend money to my people, to the poor among you…  All the creations of the Holy borrow from one another. The day borrows [time] from the night and the night borrows [time] from the day… The moon borrows [light] from the stars… – Shemot Rabbah 31:15

Borrowing and lending are integral to creation; they predate the invention of money. For instance, manure lends its nutrients to the soil, the crop borrows moisture and nitrogen from the soil, the cow eats the crop for nourishment, and leaves its manure on the ground.  All creations of the Holy One borrow and lend from one another, and we are no different, borrowing and lending but remaining equal before God.

Both Maimonides and Bachya are concerned that we preserve the dignity of the recipient of tzedakah. Remember, embarrassing a person is strictly forbidden:

Anyone who humiliates another in public, it is as though he were spilling blood.  – Bava Metzia 58b (Babylonian Talmud)

We must tread carefully when we give tzedakah. It is a mitzvah, but only if we can do it without embarrassing the recipient. Giving assistance in the form of a loan or a business partnership preserves the dignity of the needy person.  It is less demeaning to take a loan than it is to receive charity, because there is an implication that the misfortune is only temporary.

Why then does the tradition discourage charging interest on a helpful loan, say, enough to cover costs or compensate for the unavailability of funds? 

The answer is in the word k’noseh (“like a creditor”). A creditor is in a position of advantage over a debtor. A creditor holds the debt over the head of the borrower. That is not in keeping with the spirit of tzedakah, the root of which means “justice,” not “charity.” Also, interest accrues, and the borrower can wind up deeper and deeper in debt. Therefore we are forbidden to charge interest on such a loan.

For more about loans and tzedakah, see The Highest Form of Jewish Giving might be a surprise.

One popular option for fulfilling this mitzvah is to contribute to your local Jewish Free Loan Society,  To find it, go to the website of the International Association of Jewish Free Loans. By going through such an institution, we remove all embarrassment by making the face of the donor invisible, and normalizing the act of receiving assistance.

 

A Request from My Heart

Image: The Introduction to Judaism class of 2015 lights Chanukah candles together.

Dear Readers,

Would you consider joining me in making a year-end donation to Lehrhaus Judaica?

 

I am a deep believer in Lehrhaus Judaica and its mission: the empowerment of adults to pursue their Jewish passions. I believe childhood Jewish education is important, but part of that education is for Jewish kids to have educated and engaged parents, teachers, grandparents, aunties, and uncles. 

Lehrhaus Judaica is dear to my heart. It equipped me for Jewish life. Every term I meet dozens of adults who are learning through Lehrhaus, and who carry their new energy from learning back to their synagogues and other Jewish institutions. Some are new to Jewish learning, like my Intro students, and others are building upon their educations, learning topics as diverse as challah-baking, Yiddish, Mussar and Talmud study. Lehrhaus offers programs on interfaith issues and on the arts.

It’s easy to donate: just follow this link. Tell the folks in the office that I put you up to it in the little box where you can type an “optional note.” When they notify me, I will write you a handwritten note with my sincere thanks.

To quote the website:

Lehrhaus Judaica is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. All donations are tax deductible. As an independent non-profit organization, Lehrhaus relies on contributions from our students and the community to help underwrite the hundreds of courses, workshops, and lectures that we present each year. Tuition income and grants offset only part of the cost of running our school; in recent years, donations from individuals have represented up to one-third of annual budget. This year, in this difficult economic climate, we must depend on your support more than ever before.

Please consider giving. No gift is too small. Every small gift will multiply by empowering the present and the future leaders in Jewish communities. Thank you for reading.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Ruth Adar

“Giving Tuesday” – A Jewish Perspective

Image: An alarm clock, next to stacked coins. (nattanan23/Pixabay)

This is an update on a post from years past, but the message is evergreen.

“Giving Tuesday:” It’s a new tradition, started recently, and while I am glad that people are giving charity, it seems to me that the timing is backwards. We have the banquet on Thanksgiving, the shopping on “Black” Friday, the sales over the weekend, and “Cyber” Monday. The message seems to be that after we’ve had our dinner and done our shopping sprees, then we will give to the needy from what’s left.

It is a Jewish tradition to give tzedakah (money to relieve suffering – a form of the word for justice, tzedekbefore every holiday. That means giving tzedakah on Friday, before Shabbat, and before sundown brings in any other holiday or celebration.

You may be thinking, “Ouch! that’s a lot of tzedakah!” but the amount isn’t specified, just the timing. We give before we celebrate. It helps us better appreciate the good things in our lives. For someone on a very limited budget, the amount would be extremely small, since Jewish law forbids us giving more than we can afford, but for the poor person it gives the dignity of knowing that he or she contributed, too. For someone with financial security, giving regularly from a budget for giving is a way to keep wealth in perspective.

Disciplined giving keeps us awake and aware of the world around us. We cannot ignore the needy, if we give so regularly (after all, we have to choose where to give!) Since Jewish holidays come at least once a week (think Shabbat,) ideally we give small amounts so regularly that giving becomes a habit, part of our nature. Over a lifetime of tzedakah, the greatest benefit accrues to the giver, because he or she becomes a better person.

Shabbat arrives  every Friday night. Whether or not you give on Giving Tuesday, I invite you to join me in this ancient spiritual practice of regular tzedakah.

Three Ways To Help Puerto Rico

Image: A man rides his bicycle through a storm-damaged road in Toa Alta, west of San Juan, Puerto Rico (Richard Arduengo/AFP/Getty)

The news from Puerto Rico is horrible – a week after Hurricane Maria, the people lack water, food, gas, and power. The mayor of San Juan, Carmen Julín Cruz, appeared today on mainland TV, begging for water and frankly furious at the tangle of bureaucracy.

Many of us watch the news and say, “What can I do?”

Here are some ideas:

  1. CALL your Representative and your Senators in Washington, and ask for a temporary suspension of the Jones Act, officially called the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. According to the New York Times: “Section 27 of this law decreed that only American ships could carry goods and passengers from one United States port to another. In addition, every ship must be built, crewed and owned by American citizens.” In other words, it’s snarling things up for no pressing reason. This will help not only Puerto Rico but also the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  2. SEND CASH to any of several organizations who are organized to help, including:
    1. United for Puerto Rico (organized by the first lady of Puerto Rico)
    2. One America Appeal (organized by the living ex-POTUSes)
    3. Catholic Relief Services
    4. Hispanic Federations “Unidos” Page
    5. ISRAid via Global Giving
    6. Direct Relief (accepts PayPal)
    7. Charity Navigator is a good way to check out charities. They also offer a page of organizations working to assist victims of Hurricane Maria. They also offer a page on charities providing aid to those affected by the earthquakes in Mexico.
  3. VOLUNTEER
    1. Help spread the word about the Jones Act and about places to send cash.
    2. Once things are stabilized on the islands, they will need volunteers for cleanup and rebuilding. The place to follow for that information is Puerto Rico Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD).

Jews traditionally give tzedakah before festivals and holy days. This year the needs are enormous. Let us hope and pray that 5778 will see no more such disasters!

L’Shanah Tovah – My Hope for 5778

Image: A ripening pomegranate still on the bush. (Photo: niritman/pixabay)

The new Jewish year of 5778 begins at sundown tonight.

It is customary to begin a new year – any new year – with hope and celebration.

I always think, on the new year, of something I once heard Rabbi Arthur Green teach: “For contemporary Jews, Rosh Hashanah is a lifecycle celebration. We arrive at that day and say, ‘I’m still alive.'”

But for many of the living this Rosh Hashanah, it’s a grim new year.

For people in the Caribbean, for people in Florida, for people in Texas and Louisiana, for people in Mexico, the new year begins with sorrows and difficulties. For some it begins with unimaginable grief.

For people with pre-existing illness, for people with disabilities, for people who may lose their healthcare or their children’s healthcare, this new year begins with a sword hanging over them. An evil bill is up for a vote in the Senate and it has a chance of passing.

For the Rohingya people of Myanmar and the Yazidi of Iraq, this year opens with genocide staring them in the face.

For immigrants already in the United States, and refugees everywhere, 5778 dawns with painful uncertainty.

For the people of the island nation of Kiribati, there is painful certainty: today climate change is drowning their entire country.

So what can we do?

A line in the High Holy Day prayers teaches us:

Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah avert the severe decree.”

This is not a magic formula for manipulating God or fate. This is a blueprint for alleviating suffering and making the world better.

TESHUVAHTeshuvah means “turning.” It’s the Jewish word for repentance. Good people sin not because they are evil monsters but because they fail to understand how their actions or words impact others. We must put down our defensiveness and self-interest for a few moments and study the wrongs of our world. We need to study what Torah teaches us about each of them. Then teshuvah requires that we seek a plan of action to right those wrongs.

TEFILLAH – We usually translate tefillah as prayer. Clever Hebrew scholars will tell you that it is a reflexive form that actually means something like “self-reproach.” But let’s not complicate things: tefillah is speech. If we wish to “avert the severe decree” we must become strategic in our speech. We must use our voices for good: we must appeal to our lawmakers and we must tell the truth. What we must NOT do is use our speech to puff ourselves up, to be “clever” to make points, to stir up hatred for hatred’s sake. Sometimes this is a fine line to walk, but if we want to make the world better, we must control our own speech.

TZEDAKAH – The common translation is “charity.” But it is actually a very precise word that has its roots in “justice.” Tzedakah is money given for the relief of suffering or need. It is not “goods in kind” and it is not “volunteering.” The tzedakah that changes the world is an attitude about money that admits that whatever is in my bank account is there because I have been fortunate as well as hard-working. (Face it, there are plenty of hardworking people who have little or nothing.) The spirit of tzedakah is a willingness to share whatever good fortune I have with those who have less. For the very poor, that may be a penny. For the very rich, it may be a fortune. And it may take many forms, all of them money: it may be in charitable giving, or the portion of taxes that goes to provide services to the poor, or in the support of relatives in difficulty. It may be the willingness to forego unfair profit that would burden the poor. No Jew is exempt from the commandment of tzedakah. No one, Jewish or not, is “undeserving” of tzedakah if they are suffering or in need.

Teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah: if we want to heal this world, we must become aware of wrongs and resolve to right them. We must speak the truth, and only the truth in whatever way we think will actually make things better. We must be willing to share what we have with others.

This is how we will avert a future of suffering.

And this is my hope for 5778: that enough people will be willing to do these things that some suffering will be averted and the world will be better.

May this new year be a shanah tovah, a good year. Amen.

Help the Jews of Charlottesville, VA

Image: Photo of Congregation Beth Israel, from their GoFundme.com page.

Congregation Beth Israel of Charlottesville, VA stands one block from the park in which the alt-right/white supremacist rally began last weekend. The synagogue building is undamaged but faces a new set of problems. Because of its location near the now-notorious park, they face a completely new and unbudgeted security situation.

From the GoFundMe.com page of Congregation Beth Israel:

The synagogue, one of the oldest continually operating in the South, was not damaged during this past weekend’s events though CBI is only one block from the park in which the alt-right rally began. Services continued as usual on Friday evening and Saturday morning, with congregants coming together to worship and share.

CBI’s rabbinic leadership were active participants in the planning and completion of the local faith community’s response to the events. They are both safe and are helping the community process what happened, especially as it mourns the three lives lost so senselessly. One CBI member was injured by the terrorist who used his car as a weapon, but is recovering at a local medical center and is expected to do so fully.

Your generous desire to help financially is also sincerely appreciated. Your gift will be applied in part to defray increased security costs and in part to fund CBI’s social justice and social action functions. You may send your gift to CBI, P O Box 320, Charlottesville, VA  22902 or use this site for making your gift online.

I have contributed to the fund, and I invite my readers to join me. If you know of other Charlottesville institutions seeking assistance, I hope you will share them and the appropriate links in the comments.