Thursday, August 5, 2010

Reeh

This week's  Torah portion Reeh discusses the mitzvah of tzedakah.

“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.  Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.  (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)

In order to clarify this commandment, the great medieval thinker, Moses Maimonides, delineates a ladder of giving.
There are eight degrees of tzedakah, each higher than the next.
1. The highest degree, exceeded by none, is that of the person who assists a poor person by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him find employment.
2. Below this is that of the person who gives tzedakah to poor people, but the giver doesn’t know to whom he is giving nor does the recipient know from whom he is receiving. This constitutes giving for its own sake. This is similar to giving to a tzedakah collection. But one should only give to a tzedakah collection if he knows that the overseer is trustworthy and wise and conducts himself fairly.
3. Below this is a situation in which the giver knows to whom he is giving but the poor person does not know from whom he is receiving. This is like the great sages who used to walk in secret and put coins into the doors of poor people. It is worthy and truly good to do this if those who are responsible for collecting tzedakah are not trustworthy.
4. Below this is a situation in which the poor person knows from whom he is receiving, but the giver does not know the recipient. This is like the great sages who used to bundle coins in their scarves and roll them up over their backs and poor people would come and collect without being embarrassed.
5. Below this is one who gives before being asked.
6. Below this is one who gives after being asked.
7. Below this is one who gives less than what is appropriate but gives it happily.
8. Below this is one who gives unhappily. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7)
It is interesting and important to reflect on this important commandment of tzedakah. Judaism believes that giving tzedakah is about rectifying injustice and re-balancing inequities. The feelings of the giver are secondary. Regardless of how we might feel it is our obligation to help others!

In our own day and age we are confronted with requests from many worthy organizations and needy individuals.  How do we apportion our giving?  How do we decide to which organization to donate?  Do we agree with Maimonides’ formulation and his approach of a ladder of giving?  Notice that even the person who gives unhappily fulfills the mitzvah of tzedakah.  It is not of course number one on the list, but it is still tzedakah.  Notice as well that the highest form of giving is not to give anonymously but instead to help someone become self-sufficient.

Tomorrow evening we will explore this commandment in more depth.  Think about these questions.  Think about this commandment.  Email me your thoughts.  Giving tzedakah is fundamental to our Jewish approach to the world.   This why Jewish law dictates that even those who are dependent on tzedakah are obligated to give tzedakah.  Giving shapes the heart of the giver and transforms the hands of the recipient.

It is  through righteous giving that we will realize the promise with which our Torah portion begins.  “See, this day, I set before you blessing and curse...”  (Deuteronomy 11:26)

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