Who Gives?

Avram Mlotek
March 18, 2013
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Money and monetary wealth are not something the Jewish tradition shies away from. In the recent Torah portion of Teruma we saw how gold is put to a positive use with the construction of the mishkan, the tabernacle, providing a portable spiritual base as the Israelites traveled through the desert. In the coming parasha of Ki Tisa we will see how riches can just as easily foster negativity and baseness with the creation of the golden calf. What we spend our money on is a core Jewish value.

The Shulchan Aruch in Yoreh Deah 248:1 teaches: “Everyone is obligated to give tzedaka. Even people supported by tzedaka must contribute from what they receive. Anyone who refuses to give (tzedaka) or who gives less than what he should give, the court pressures him until he gives…The court can confiscate his possessions and deduct from them an appropriate amount (for tzedaka). They may seize possessions worth the value of his pledge, even on Friday afternoon.”

R. Joseph Karo uses the language of “chayav – being strictly obligated” in giving tzedaka. Here we see that helping those in need is not only philanthropic in Judaism—it is mandatory and a commanded part of Jewish life. Just as there are strict laws in the Shulchan Aruch with regards to synagogue life, family life and kashrut, dietary laws, so too with tzedaka. The very fact that even a poor person must give, that the Beit Din may confiscate and deduct from his assets for tzedaka, stresses social justice’s high value within our tradition.

The Rambam in discussing the laws of tzedaka in his Mishna Torah writes in Chapter 10: “We are obligated to be careful with regard to the mitzvah of tzedaka to a greater extent than all other positive commandments, because tzedaka is an identifying mark of a righteous person, a descendant of Avraham, our patriarch as Bresheet 18:19 teaches: ‘I have known him, because he commands his children…to perform tzedaka.’ The throne of Israel will not be established, nor will the true faith stand except through tzedaka, as Yishayahu 54:14 teaches: “You shall be established through tzedaka.’…Israel will be redeemed solely through tzedaka.”

Maimonides reminds us with his writing that the Jewish people’s mission is forever linked with justice. Giving tzedaka is part of living a just life. When we tax ourselves into giving to those who are in need, we shift our focus from solely on ourselves to those around us. “Justice, justice, shall you pursue” calls the book of Dvarim. Giving tzedakah regularly is an affirmation and reply to that ancient Biblical credo.

Why the emphasis on tzedaka and on justice? As Reb Shlomo Carlebach taught, “we are simply tenants here in this world.” Pirkei Avot teaches, “Eyzehu ashir, Ha-Sameach b’chelko – Who is truly wealthy? One who is satisfied with her portion.” The Netivot Shalom, a Hassidic text from the Slonimer dynasty, teaches that this insight is a fundamental piece to appreciating that all of life is a gift from God, and emphasizes the power of human perspective to help uplift one spiritually and emotionally. It is upon us to share what we have with others, bringing more justice to our world.

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Avram Mlotek is a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and performs regularly with the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene Center for Performing Arts. His writings have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Forward and The Jewish Week. Avram was recently named in The Jewish Week's "36 Under 36" as a leading innovator in Jewish life today. He lives on the Upper West Side with his wife and daughter.

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