Charity’s a choice, tzedakah isn’t

Charity’s a choice, tzedakah isn’t

If we find our neighbor in trouble, we must help him or her. This isn’t just being neighborly; this is the law, our law. To help someone who is in trouble is not a choice, it’s an obligation. If we find lost property, we must return it. If our brethren are in financial trouble, we must help get them get out of it.

According to our greatest philosopher, Maimonides, there are eight levels of tzedakah, commonly known as charity. Many people think that the highest level is anonymous giving, but that is actually the second-highest level. The highest level is helping another become financially independent.

Tzedakah does not actually mean “charity.” Tzedek, tzadik, tzedakah. It means “righteousness,” doing the right thing. And tzedakah is a mitzvah; not a good deed, but a commandment. To not give tzedakah is to steal from the poor, because we are commanded to give. You may think that dollar is yours, but it actually belongs to the poor. And the highest level of tzedakah is getting someone back on their feet, getting him a job, getting him to the point where he no longer needs help, the point where he can help others. This is the highest level of tzedakah.

In Judaism everything is observed in moderation — joy, happiness, anger, drinking, even tzedakah. Once upon a time, I was taught the difference between charity and tzedakah. Charity is how much you feel like giving, and tzedakah is how much you have to give. We are supposed to give 10 percent. Now, if everyone gave 1 percent, there would be no more poor; but, there is also a limit.

We are taught to not give more than 20 percent. Some say “give the shirt off your back,” but that’s not us. What’s the problem with giving the shirt off your back? Then you’d have no shirt and so the problem continues. “Give till it hurts?” Also, not us. The solution to need is helping, not hurting. So, we give what we can give, until they can give themselves.

If we see our neighbor in trouble, we must help her or him, whether with money or time or energy. Writing a check helps, but so does a hug, a listening ear, a helping hand and a shoulder to cry on. All this is tzedakah as well. All this is righteousness. We must give of ourselves to others. It is not a choice. It is an obligation. It is the law.

(Rabbi Alex Greenbaum is rabbi of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills.)