How to Give Charity Like a Jew
Based on Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
By: Braha Bender
Ever play broken telephone? The development of a language is like playing broken telephone with an entire culture over hundreds of years. The etymology of a language reveals a great deal about the thinking of the people speaking it.
For example, in English, the word charity means showing benevolence to the poor. The players in this game are very clearly defined: the charitable person is a giver, and the poor person is a taker. By definition, charity is not business; there is no exchange of goods. The charity giver is doing the poor person a favour, and the least the poor person can do is to be grateful. Could this attitude breed arrogance?
Now turn this game upside down. Imagine a world where the poor person was doing the charity-giver a favour - simply by allowing him the privilege of giving charity. Nobody wants to be poor, but being poor should not mean losing your dignity. Enter Judaism.
The closest Torah word to charity is tzedaka, but tzedaka doesn’t actually mean charity at all. The act of giving tzedaka might look a lot like the act of giving charity, but the motivations and social structure behind the two are entirely different.
For example, consider the verse, “When you lend money to My people, to the poor person who is with you, do not act toward him as a creditor” (Exodus 22:24). This verse says a great deal about the difference between Jewish giving and charity.
For one thing, the Almighty states His affiliation right from the start. Think you’re better because you’re rich? Think you’ve got the poor in your gilt-lined pocket to do with as you wish? The carpet is swept out from under the feet of the wealthy supremacy: “The poor are not your people, but My people are they” (Midrash Rabba).
The poor are not second-class citizens. “...But it is to this that I look: to the poor and broken spirited person...” (Isaiah 66:2). Many such verses explain that the poor and needy are not only deserving of help, but privileged with a special closeness to the One Above. Enter a new social hierarchy.
But Torah goes one step further. Were you brought up to believe that the poor and needy live “on the other side of the tracks”? Torah tears those fabricated social barriers apart. We are commanded to help out “the poor who are with you”. In Torah thought, there is no other side of the tracks.
A rabbi collecting tzedaka in the eighteen hundreds knocked on the door of the wealthiest man in the city. The wealthy man answered the door in light dress, and invited the rabbi into his warm home. The rabbi refused, forcing the wealthy man to hear out his request on the freezing cold doorstep.
“I’m collecting money to buy wood to heat the homes of the poor of the city. Would you be willing to help?” the rabbi asked.
Rubbing his hands against the harsh winds, the wealthy man replied, “Certainly, certainly! Just please come inside!”
A few minutes later, while seated in front of a roaring fire cosily heating a beautifully appointed living room, the wealthy man asked the rabbi why he had forced him to hear out the request for tzedaka on the freezing doorstep.
Answered the rabbi, “I wanted you to feel what the poor of the town are going through.” The rabbi was not giving the wealthy man a guilt trip. He was simply putting the wealthy man in touch with reality.
Inherent in the mitzvah of tzedaka is the unspoken subtext: do not look down on your fellow man. Why would you? You and he are the same person in different shoes. The reason you have been given wealth is in order to take care of those in less fortunate circumstances. Wake up! The situation could just as easily have been reversed. The poor are “with you”.
The literal translation of the word tzedaka is justice. Unlike charity, there is no ego-gratification to be won by giving tzedaka. By aiding the needy, you are not doing anybody a favour, you are fulfilling an obligation.
In the place of charity’s arrogant self-aggrandizement, the tzedaka-giver blossoms with a humble joy at having met the standards of decency and helped another, equally deserving person. If the world was populated by people like that, how would it look different? You can be that person.