Tzedakah – How much is too much?

Rabbi Steven I. Rein
October 24, 2011
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“If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman” (Deut. 15:7) This section of the Torah is most concerned with what we would call social justice. How do we help the poor? How do we remove poverty from the land? How do we achieve the goal stated in the Torah: “There shall be no needy among you” (Deut 15:4)? As former President Lyndon Johnson would say: Can we win the war on poverty?

The Torah is filled with obligations towards the poor. We are obligated to give tzedakah, the highest form of which is to help someone become self-sufficient. If we loan someone money to survive, we are not supposed to charge interest. We must redeem our kinsman that sold himself into slavery in order to pay off a debt. We cannot accept items needed for survival as a lien on a loan. The laws go on…basically, someone else’s poverty places obligations upon us. But, how far do we go to help someone? Do we forgive all debts? Do we empty our wallet with every ask? The Torah does not specify.

I once heard a beautiful kabbalistic insight utilizing the three spheres of hesed, gevurah, and teferet. Hesed (kindness) represents the world of forgiving, pouring out our love to others, and our desire to give to all those who are in need. Hesed is a wonderful quality, but without limits can be dangerous. It has the potential to cause those in need to become dependant rather than self-sufficient. Gevurah (strength or restraint) represents discipline in our lives, the ability to say enough is enough, the inner strength to say “I cannot help you anymore, you are on your own.” Gevurah prevents others from taking advantage of us, but if we have too much restraint we become selfish. The dialectical formula, ascribed to Hegel, is that when thesis (Hesed) is pitted against antithesis (Gevurah), the only solution is synthesis (Teferet). Teferet (beauty or balance and harmony) is the middle ground, the balance between too much kindness and too much selfishness.

Even in government, extremes ought to be avoided. We cannot live in an extreme libertarian or an extreme Marxist society. There must be a way to help those in need without creating too much of a burden on those who are more fortunate. A balance must be found – bringing us back to teferet. “There shall be no needy among you” – the plight of the needy will not be ignored. This will one day ring true as we seek teferet – harmony and balance – in the world we live in.

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