Charitable giving and donor-advised funds as a means to give have exploded in recent years. They’re designed to aid people like you and me to donate more easily and more significantly. These new ways of giving offer donors in our community wonderful opportunities to fulfill the mitzvah that we call tzedakah. As tzedakah is re-imagined in today’s world, it’s important to remember and reflect on what this value has meant for our people throughout the ages.
Tzedakah is a word that is commonly used, but not always understood. Too often, people incorrectly understand it as only charity; that is, making a personal sacrifice and giving to help a cause or a person in need. They don’t seem to understand that tzedakah is much more than simply giving and that it is definitely not to be viewed as a sacrifice.
I believe that this is what some people think, because they don’t understand that the root of tzedakah is the word “tzedek.” Tzedek means “righteous and just” and consequently, fulfilling the mitzvah of tzedakah means doing that which is just as well as doing that which needs to be done.
Some people also don’t understand that tzedakah, as a mitzvah, is something one is obligated to do. Judaism tells us that even the poor, those supported by the community by means of tzedakah, are required to give tzedakah — because it is the just and right thing to do.
It is the just and right thing to do not only because it is a commandment, but also because by doing this mitzvah, we can acquire an understanding of an important principal that Judaism would like us to not only understand, but also to integrate into our lives. That principal is that all we possess is ours as a result of being blessed. Further, this is a principal which God hopes will drive us to understand that it is not only an obligation but an honor to share that which we’ve acquired and that which we possess.
My hope is that someday every one of us will understand and accept that when asked to give tzedakah, it is an honor to give and share if we’re able to do so. My hope is that each of us will also understand that if and when asked to give we’re unable to do so, we don’t need to feel guilty about having to say no. Someday I hope we’re able to view it as an honor to be asked and solicited while remembering that it is OK to say, “I’m sorry, but I’m unable to give right now.”
All of these tzedakah-related lessons are very hard ones to learn, but they’re very important ones to learn and remember. If we can learn them and remember them, our community will be one that will be sustained in a variety of ways by its members who have seen and understood that Judaism gives us the opportunity to do that which is “just and right.”
Consider this responsive reading in the Siddur Hadash:
Tzedakah blesses the one who gives
even more than the one who receives.
We make a living by what we get.
We make a life by what we give.
Let us not aim to “give until it hurts.”
Let us give until it helps and heals.
Each day we receive blessings without number.
May every day, therefore, find us sharing our blessings.
Rabbi Marvin Goodman is executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California.