Charity - the root of all
Charity - the root of alliStock

The commandments regarding charity are set forth in the Torah and elucidated in the Talmud. In Tractate Baba Batra (9b), Rav Yitzhak said: “Anyone who gives a coin to a poor person receives six blessings, and whoever consoles him with words of comfort and encouragement receives eleven blessings.”

And Tractate Brachot (58b) relates how Rav Chana always kept his hand in his pocket so as not to embarrass the poor by visibly reaching in when giving alms.

For many, charity is the embodiment of Torah values and service and is thus considered innately Jewish. The humanitarian impulse was so ingrained over the generations that Jews became known for donating more than any other ethnic or religious group.

What it is that people who confuse politics with chairty do not understand.

But somewhere along the line charity became conflated with politics and giving patterns began to reflect ideologies that often diverged from normative Jewish tradition. As many Jews became secular and liberal, they began to eschew Jewish philanthropy and instead support political causes and institutions. In many households, charitable giving went to organizations advocating partisan ideals and progressive politics rather than traditional cultural and educational endeavors. Perhaps not coincidentally, support for religious institutions and Israel seemed to drop off as observance and affiliation declined.

Those who look to these trends for direction have forgotten the Jewish concept of charity or never learned it at all.

The Hebrew word for charity, “tzedakah,” derives from the word “tzedek,” which means “righteousness.” The word root implies more than simply donating to the needy – though that is certainly important – and has nothing to do with supporting political ideologies, particularly when they contravene Jewish law and tradition.

As expounded by the Rambam (Maimonides), one of the highest levels of tzedakah is to give anonymously so that neither giver nor recipient knows the other. This preserves human dignity while assisting those in need and fulfilling the Jews’ obligation to participate in G-d’s ongoing act of creation by infusing the mundane world with holiness. Dignity is paramount even when anonymity is impossible.

I reflected on this recently as my mother’s tenth yahrzeit approached.

My parents taught us the concept of tzedakah by example, freely donating resources and time to Jewish institutions. Though growing up in such an environment can make the charitable impulse familiar, it does not necessarily guaranty its internalization. That comes from consistent moral conditioning, which my mother accomplished by exuding empathy. Whether she and my father were contributing to institutions, or if she was putting a dollar in a panhandler’s cup, she always took care to respect human dignity. Whenever she gave money to a street person, she did so with kind words and a smile. If giving could not be done anonymously, she would do her best to validate the recipient’s humanity.

These are the kinds of lessons that mold the psyche.

When I quit my job as a health and medical reporter to attend law school in Washington, D.C., I arrived with a young family in tow and concerns about how to balance work and study. I was a fulltime student working as a freelance correspondent for two medical news publishers, and both pursuits competed for my time and attention. But despite the stresses of this existence, my daily encounters with Washington’s homeless showed there were greater problems out there.

Every day I would take the Metro downtown to one of two stops. The first one, Farragut West, was a long walk from school but took me through some trendy neighborhoods with good coffee shops. The second, Foggy Bottom, was two blocks from the university, and despite fewer prospects for good coffee it was the more logical stop in inclement weather. The above-ground pavilions at both stations teemed with homeless people begging for change.

On one crisp, autumn morning during my second year, I disembarked at Farragut West and noticed a man I’d never seen before. He had a sign that read “donations accepted,” so I reached into my pocket for loose change, gave him a nod, and went on my way. I saw him again the next day, but this time he made eye contact and said “hello,” which was enough to establish a relationship according to prevailing street etiquette. We exchanged pleasantries and chatted frequently thereafter.

A few weeks later, with winter approaching and the weather beginning to turn, he had a new sign that read, “will accept money or food.” Looking at the sign, I asked whether he would prefer a couple of dollars or breakfast instead. He chose the latter, so we went to a nearby coffee shop that advertised ninety-nine-cent breakfast specials. The counter waitress saw his tattered clothes and gave him a long look but seated him when she realized I would be paying.

I bought him the ninety-nine-cent special, which consisted of two eggs, toast, potatoes, and refillable coffee, but he hesitated before eating. When I asked why, he said it would be rude to start before I had my food. I then explained that as a Jew I only ate kosher food, but that my dietary restrictions should not stop him. Fortunately, there was a coffee takeout window that some of my observant classmates frequented, so I got a cup and we sat and talked while he ate. He asked a lot of questions about the laws of Kashrut and Jewish observance that day.

This became our morning ritual from then on. As the weather chilled with the changing seasons, I made a point of getting off at Farragut West because I figured he needed breakfast and warmth. I knew his first name, Bill, but he never told me his last name, perhaps out of shame regarding his situation.

During one breakfast a couple of months into our relationship, he fell silent while drinking his coffee. He seemed troubled. “You know, I wasn’t always like this,” he said without looking me in the eye. “I know,” I replied. He then said, “I won’t always be like this,” to which I responded, “I know that, too.”

And then he told me his story – about how he had worked in construction until getting injured on the job. He told me of being struck on the head by some falling stone and sustaining a traumatic brain injury, which he corroborated by displaying his horrific scars. He received a worker’s compensation settlement after his hospitalization, but the money eventually ran out leaving him homeless – forced to sleep in one shelter after another.

I told him I had no doubt his fortunes would change someday, and his mood improved with his coffee refill.

We continued our routine for more than a year until shortly before I graduated. A week before, I told him I’d be graduating and moving back up north, and he said he was going to miss me. I told him the same as I reached into my pocket and pulled out one-hundred dollars.

He looked at the wad of bills, then looked at me and said, “I don’t want your money.” But I told him, “I’m not giving you money; I’m giving you a gift of one-hundred breakfast specials. And after the last one you should have some change left over to put in somebody else’s cup.” He liked that, and only then would he accept the money.

We hugged and parted ways.

My mother came down a week later for graduation, and as my wife and I were packing up the apartment, she asked me whether I would miss living in Washington. I told her no, but that I would miss one particular friend. And then I told her Bill’s story. She regarded me silently for a moment, and then asked, “What possessed you to buy him breakfast in the first place?” I replied, “it didn’t occur to me not to.” And that’s when she revealed to me the true meaning of tzedakah. “You gave him something more important than just breakfast – you gave him back his dignity.”

I hadn’t considered that. I thought I was merely having coffee and spending time with somebody I had come to regard as a friend and whose company I truly enjoyed. I never considered any deeper meaning. Indeed, if there was any nobility, it came from my parents who instilled Jewish values in me, and especially my mother, who treated people respectfully regardless of station or circumstance. Given the same situation, she would have bought him breakfast as well; and so it was with me.

And that’s what people who confuse politics with tzedakah cannot understand. Conflating the two is ultimately narcissistic and only severs the connection between charity and “tzedek.” This is not what Rav Yitzhak, Rav Chana, or the Rambam taught, and it’s not what the Torah commands. Though I learned the laws of tzedakah by studying Torah and the Sages, I was only able to fully grasp its beauty and depth because of the insightful words of my mother, Hinda Etel bat Tzvi, z”l, and the example she set.

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