The Tzedakah Tax

March 15, 2013
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It is without a doubt that heavenly forces, be they deistic or not, work in mysterious ways. Cleaning house just the other day I had the common experience of finding some spare change. I made a neat pile of it and when done with tidying I took the change and placed it in a little can on the desk designated for a local Jewish charity. The coins made a satisfying ‘clink, clink’ as they found friends gathered from past days pocket emptying. But what is being saved for exactly?

This is likely a regular experience in many Jewish homes, religious and non, well-off and not so, in Israel or New York. Placing a little bit in the Tzedakah piggy bank on a regular basis is a cultural habit, a savings account for good deeds often cashed out on Rosh Hashanah in the spirit of starting a New Year off with generosity. But why? Could there be a divine purpose behind this morsel of Jewish tradition?

Yes, I believe so – Right Action is built into Jewish thought and law. As Shaul Magid notes in this month’s Sh’ma, Tzedakah is “far from discretionary” and is an act of “obligation, of sacrifice, of responsibility to the society in which we live.” But is Tzedakah built into the Jewish experience solely for the benefit of others and as another “just because”? Not so; intuition, heart, and experience tell me of a much greater purpose.

Tzedakah is a tax for benefit of the soul, a practice that is instilled into Jewish culture, action, and society for the well-being of the whole as much as for the individual. Just as social security, federal, and state taxes are required from our yearly incomes, so is Tzedakah required for the well-being of our spirits – teaching us the value of selfless offering… a hard lesson to learn!

Were such giving, such mindful self-sacrifice an option the lesson would perhaps bypass us. Were it not a daily mitzvah its significance maybe overlooked. Giving, is not something we do to feel accomplished, it is something we do because we must, such as a health checkup, caring for our loved ones, or eating right. But is it a chore? No, not quite. Just as a sense of pride erupts from working to care for our family, eating well out of self-love, or volunteering, Tzedakah is one of those necessary efforts that illuminates the beauty of life. The fruit that seems bitter is actually quite sweet. But why such teachings through coin?

Money, as a physical and philosophical medium has held a central place in recent human history and should there be a greater “plan”, the advent and role of currency will be seen as a major, and significant epoch in our growth. Money is also often considered the root of evils and ills, a tool of destruction and a source of corruption. But is a tool not merely a vehicle for the heart of the wielder? And is the wielder not changed within by how he or she chooses to use those tools?

In this light tools such as guns have a limited range of purposes, but Money? Money in and of itself is quite neutral, though has a wide range of applications, and is perhaps the most widely applicable material tool in currant global society. Therefore when given the options of the whole wide world, giving is by far the most courageous action, the most worthy practice, the most honorable cause.

The Tzedakah Tax is therefore of itself a gift and a guiding principle. We must do it, but it is a privilege to say, “Yes! As a culture we know what this tool can do! We choose, we know, we understand that with this power comes an equal responsibility, a mandate to righteousness.”
The Law taxes our pockets, but it showers our spirits with wealth. To paraphrase a great quote – what we hold on to we lose, what we give is ours forever. This is Tzedakah.

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Lee Frankel-Goldwater is a professional environmental educator, writer, and social good project developer as well as a recent graduate of NYU's Environmental Conservation Education masters program. Lee has also studied at the Center for Creative Ecology on Kibbutz Lotan, Israel and at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Currently he has been leading development of the Global Action Classroom, an Earth Child Institute initiative focused on global youth environmental cooperation and helping to create the Global Sustainability Fellows, a program of The Sustainability Laboratory seeking to design a new and innovative, international sustainability masters program. Other projects include: developing mobile applications for encouraging social action, mixed media video design, leading peace and environmental education workshops, and doing his best to live a life in connection with the Earth while helping others to do the same. At heart Lee is a poet, traveler, musician, and philosopher with a deep curiosity for new experiences, unfamiliar cultures, learning languages, and often dancing to the beat of a different drummer. As student of yoga, meditation, and spiritual arts, Lee aims to connect the inner journey with the outer one, hoping, as he can, to share what is learned along the way, enjoying the journey.

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