The Hebrew word "tzedakah" is commonly translated as "charity" or "tithe." But this is misleading. "Charity" implies that your heart motivates you to go beyond the call of duty. "Tzedakah," however, literally means "righteousness" -- doing the right thing. A "tzaddik," likewise, is a righteous person, someone who fulfills all his obligations, whether in the mood or not.
The verse says: "Tzedek, tzedek you shall pursue" -- justice justice you shall pursue (Deut. 16:20). There's a basic human responsibility to reach out to others. Giving of your time and your money is a statement that "I will do whatever I can to help."
The Torah recommends giving 10 percent. (Hence the popular expression "tithe," meaning one-tenth.) The legal source is Deut. 14:22, and the Bible is filled with examples: Abraham gave Malki- Tzedek one-tenth of all his possessions (Genesis 14:20); Jacob vowed to give one-tenth of all his future acquisitions to the Almighty (Genesis 29:22); there are mandated tithes to support the Levites (Numbers 18:21, 24) and the poor (Deut. 26:12).
Ten percent is the minimum obligation to help. For those who want to do more, the Torah allows you to give 20 percent. But above that amount is unrealistic. If you give too much, you'll come to neglect other aspects of your life. Practices similar to tzedakah can be found in many other cultures and religions, such as zakat in the Muslim tradition or tithing in Christianity.
Of course, don't just impulsively give your money away. The Almighty provides everyone with income, but it comes conditionally: Ten percent is a trust fund that you're personally responsible to disperse. God is expecting you to spend His money wisely.
If you were running a humanitarian foundation, you'd make a thorough study of the best use of your money. It's the same with tzedakah. When you choose one project over another, you have to calculate why it is more effective than the other.
There are so many possible projects: the poor, the sick, the uneducated, drug abuse, domestic violence, the homeless. Which one should you pick?
Tzedakah begins at home. If your parents are hungry, that comes before giving to a homeless shelter. From there it is concentric circles outward: your community, then the world.
Once you've defined "who" to give to, what's the best method to do so? Maimonides lists eight levels of tzedakah in order of priority. Many people think the highest level is to give money anonymously. Actually there's an even higher level: helping a person to become self-sufficient. This includes giving him a job, or a loan to start a business.
This is the source of the Jewish concept of a free loan fund, called a Gemach. If you help someone start a business, he can feed himself and 10 other people besides. As the old saying goes: Rather than give him fish to eat, teach him to be a fisherman. This represents a higher level of Tikkun Olam, because now the fisherman can go out and help others. You've really fixed something.
There's actually one higher level of tzedakah: being sensitive to someone before he's in trouble. As the Sages explain: It takes one person to support something before it falls, but after it falls, even five people may not be able to lift it.
Tzedakah is not only helping people financially, it's also making them feel good. If a hungry person asks for food, and you give it to him with a resentful grunt, you've lost the mitzvah. Sometimes giving an attentive ear or a warm smile is more important than money.
You can also protect someone's self-esteem by giving even before he asks. The bottom line is that every person has unique needs, and it is our obligation to help each one accordingly.
What if you offer someone a job and he's too lazy to work? Then you don't have to give him anything. The Talmud (Baba Metzia 32b) says: If he doesn't care about himself, then you're not required to care about him, either.
Beyond the 10 percent commitment of money, there's another aspect: a 10 percent commitment of time.
If you're really serious about fixing the world, you won't just mail a check. You'll join an organization. Many of the world's great revolutions have succeeded by strength in numbers: the civil rights movement, women's rights, or even save the whales.
What if no organization exists?
Then create it.
The Talmud (Baba Batra 9a) says: "Greater than one who does a mitzvah, is one who causes others to do a mitzvah." If you really want to be effective, wake others up to the problem, and mobilize their efforts.
Imagine that a child is sick with a rare disease. If it's an acquaintance, you'd probably say, "Oh, that's terrible."
Now ask them: "Okay, what are you doing about it?"
"Me?! What can I do about it?"
If you care, you could do a lot. If it was your relative, you'd take some personal responsibility, perhaps researching information on the Internet.
You turn over any stone to attain the goal of helping your loved one.
If you want to make a difference, it's possible.
Beyond the basic responsibility of tzedakah is rachamim, "mercy" -- caring about others personally and getting involved. You can walk around claiming to be a good person, but unless you feel it inside, you're not really there.
That's why the Torah juxtaposes the command to "love your neighbor," next to the prohibition "not to stand idly by while another is in need."
Don't cruise through life as if it's some obstacle course: watch out, here's a human being, manipulate him, push him, score a point, one-upmanship. That's not the way. You have to share the burden.
This is a recognition that everything -- including the needs of every other human being -- was created for you. We are all caretakers of this world, responsible to deal with the problems. Everything on earth, problems as well as beauty, offers an opportunity for you to connect and to grow. Every person you encounter is there because you need it at that time. If someone needs help, it's part of your challenge, a message for you.
Look around at absolutely everything and ask, "What is this saying to me? Why was this sent as part of my path to perfection?"
Feel the victims of society. Feel the victims of crime. Feel the victims of terrorism. Feel the victims of old age. Feel the victims of discrimination. Feel the suffering of people you will never meet -- about the plight of strangers halfway around the world.
How do you become real with the suffering of others? To understand the problems encountered by a blind person, for example, try blindfolding yourself for a day. Or go to the hospital and visit patients with disabilities. Share the burden.
Tzedakah is considered very important religiously, as rabbinic writings teach us that through giving tzedakah, we emulate God and can also atone for wrongdoing. Many Jewish holidays include a component of giving tzedakah, and it is traditional to give tzedakah at important life cycle events such as births, bar/bat mitzvahs and weddings and to honor the memory of someone who has passed away.
Giving tzedakah can take many forms—from giving money directly to those in need to donating to an organization that fights poverty. For generations, Judaism’s traditional vehicle for giving has been the tzedakah box. The tzedakah box, known in Yiddish as a pushke, originated as a large public collection box that was placed in a synagogue or town square. Community members would deposit within it money for the town’s welfare fund, burial society or other collections. In 1904 the Jewish National Fund revolutionized this model by developing small tins designed for the family home that were used to collect spare change. Moving the locus of giving from the public square into private homes revolutionized how Jews gave. Similarly, today, in the face of new technology—ranging from credit cards to apps to the internet—as well as expanding understanding of where we are obligated to give—beyond local, ethnic and religious parameters—we have entered a new revolution about how, where, to whom and why we give.
Partially Adapted by an Article from Rabbi Simmons
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