on Thursday, 16 August 2012. Posted in Torah Talks
This week we read the Torah portion of Re'eh, the fourth sedrah in the book of Deuteronomy, which follows a sequence of marvelous Torah portions with yet another remarkable text. Re'eh includes one of the most radical statements in the entirety of the Torah: "ki yihyeh v'cha evyon mei'echad achecha, b'echad sh'arecha, if there is among you a poor man, one of your brothers, within one of your gates, in the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand from your needy brother; ki fato'ach tiftach et yadcha lo, you shall certainly open your hand to him, and give him enough for whatever he lacks-whatever he wants."
The commandment is not simply to provide for the needs of the needy, not just to alleviate their suffering, but to give them what they actually want: sustenance, security, a decent life. It is much more than we seek to provide in our American society, in which the safety net seemingly has as many holes as net. It is more than the social protestors in Israel last summer believed that their society was providing. It is a powerful, dramatic statement. Open your hand, and surely give the needy poor what they ought to have.
This is part of the strong economic agenda of Deuteronomy. No one is supposed to accumulate great wealth or enormous power, and no one is to be left destitute. Most importantly, our moral obligation is to see to it that none of our brothers and sisters is left without what they need in order to survive.
Herein lies a foundational lesson on the morality of giving. Give not only what someone needs in your opinion-give her or him enough to live reasonably and with dignity, and do so in a way that preserves the recipient's dignity. That is the true measure of tzedakah, of living justly and in righteousness.
Judaism, at its heart, is pragmatic ethics. We are trained to make the world morally better by practical action. After exploring the Talmudic dictum that even those who receive charity need to give something to those with even less, the rabbis conclude that tzedakah is meant to be a percentage of your income, not a hard figure-and that the same percentage, whether it's 10% or 5% of gross income or some other number, should be given in good times and bad. It's true that when there is less income there will be a smaller absolute amount donated. But the percentage, and thus the integrity of the individual's morality, must be preserved.
Over the more than 13 years I have been the Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El we have seen good economic times, terrible economic times, and plenty of in-between economic times. But I have never seen a time when there wasn't great importance for tzedakah to help those in need, because there are always people in need.
So, open your hand... and give a percentage of your gross income to help others. Do so freely, and generously, in good times, in tough times, at all times. It's the Jewish thing to do. It's the right thing to do.