By Rabbi Naftali Schiff
In the wake of communal events like Mitzvah Day and Band Aid 30, which raised £1m in just five minutes to combat Ebola, it is worth considering the Jewish view on charity – and address the question: where is the next generation of communal givers?
Charity is not something that necessarily comes naturally. One of the first reflexes a baby has is to grab hold of a finger placed in the palm of its hand. Young children often grab and have to be taught to share. The notion of “mine” runs deep. Throughout our lives, many of us strive to acquire possessions.
When we die, however, the Jewish custom is to open the hands of the deceased before burial. The message is powerful: “We can’t take anything with us.” Life is all about educating ourselves that “mine” is temporary, whereas acts of giving last forever. We live in a generation of unparalleled goodness.
Technology is advancing at a rapid pace, and we want to keep up with the latest, lightest, fastest phone or computer we can get hold of. We have a global range of food in our supermarkets and an endless choice of holiday destinations available at affordable prices.
We are constantly being bombarded with messages and advertisements about how to spend our hard-earned money to bring us happiness and satisfaction. And yet, on nobody’s gravestone are any material possessions ever recorded. Only the kindness, goodness, giving and love of that person.
Unlike the English word for charity, which comes from the Latin word caritas meaning care or compassion, the Hebrew word tzedakah comes from the word tzedek meaning right or just. Tzedakah is not meant to be an expression of pity for those who are less fortunate. Rather, those who have been blessed with money and resources ought to see those blessings as a great opportunity [and a responsibility] to better the lives of others.
As Churchill famously said: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Perhaps this requires a shift in attitude for some. Judaism does not view tzedakah as optional.
Those who have are meant to understand that they are the custodians of a gift from God. Like any gift, the way we show appreciation is to use it wisely.
The Talmud says that man is given gifts as a challenge of sorts, to see what we will do with them.
Will we hold onto all our resources for ourselves, or will we use them to further the betterment of society and those individuals within it who genuinely need our help? When tzedakah is seen as a responsibility, as part and parcel of our lives and not as a luxury, communities and society flourish.
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Ask the Rabbi: 28/11/2014: http://wp.me/p3xO31-aME
Sedra of the week: Vayetze: http://wp.me/p3xO31-aMI