Aboriginal activist Lila Watson said, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time; but if you are herebecause your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
It is the answer to an age-old dilemma. Some need, some can give.
Many on the giving end feel bad if they feel good about their tzedakah, as if it is selfish or petty to derive some personal benefit from someone else’s suffering. Or worse, they unwittingly adopt a patronizing tone, failing to recognize the dignity of the person before them. On the receiving end, those in need often feel shame when they have to ask for help.
And lest we forget, the tables can turn in an instant. Watson asks us to rid ourselves of the power imbalance that keeps us from seeing each other as fully human. This week’s portion, Ki Tavo, offers us a view of justice that resonates with her words.
The parashah begins by explaining the laws of bringing first fruits to the Levites and tithing the yield of our produce by giving a portion to the poor. Significantly, the formula that must be recited as the fruits are set down at the altar recalls the oppression and poverty the Israelites suffered in Egypt. Then we read, “you shall rejoice in all of the good things that YHWH your God has given you and your household, you and the Levite and the sojourner that is in your midst” (Deuteronomy 26:11).
The parashah implies that the well-off and the poor person are linked. We give to others when we are blessed to have something to give. We experienced poverty when we were in Egypt, and now it is our obligation to help bring about someone else’s salvation.
Further on, we are instructed that God must be served “in joy and good-feeling of heart over the abundance of everything” (Deuteronomy 28:47). If God bestows bounty upon us, it is an insult to hoard this plenty instead of ensuring that the poor, weak, the stranger, the orphan and widow are all benefitting from that wealth.
Although we might be wary of attributing our successes to God’s will, it is a humbling notion. If God grants fortune, then God can withdraw it just as easily. Even if we resist crediting divine favor for our successes, we have seen during the last years how quickly those who were seemingly secure became those in need.
A midrash teaches that “more than the wealthy person does for the poor, the poor person does for the wealthy” (Vayikra Rabbah 34:8). If we are in a position to lift someone out of suffering, it should bring us satisfaction to do so. Feeling good about serving actually levels the power imbalance a bit. If I give and get nothing from it myself, I am assuming that while I have something to offer, there is nothing this person could possibly have to offer me. When I am on the receiving end of someone’s kindness, I hope that I have something to offer them in return.
When we recognize that we derive personal benefit from caring for those in need, we acknowledge that each human being has gifts to offer, even if they are not always monetary.
The High Holy Days are fast approaching. I cannot count the number of people who have told me over the years that they weren’t allowed at services because they couldn’t pay enough, or wouldn’t ask for assistance because of the stereotype that all Jews are well-off. This should be a problem of the past. Every Jewish institution I know of offers financial assistance not only for the holidays, but for annual dues. The only issue left is asking for it. Let us take the stigma out of asking. When we ask, we are not requesting “help,” but that someone on the other end of the phone recognizes that our liberation is bound up together.
When we recognize the inherent dignity of every individual, each created in the image of God, we are equal. So don’t worry if it feels good to give tzedakah or to work with those in need. It should. And when we are the recipients, likewise, let us recognize we all have something to give and teach one another.
Rabbi Mychal Copeland is a rabbi and senior Jewish educator at Hillel at Stanford. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.