Vowing to Give – Matot 5774
Parshat Matot begins with a discussion of the laws of vows and promises. Although Jewish law discourages taking oaths because of their seriousness and severity, nevertheless it is customary to make promises, or pledges for charity. Maimonides explains that one of the ideas behind making a promise to give before giving, as opposed to merely giving is to impress upon the giver that his act is obligatory and not merely “nice.” For thousands of years the Jewish people have been noted for their philanthropy. Every Jewish community in the world, no matter how small or poor, has always had charitable societies and funds. A typical example was the Jewish community of Rome in the 17th century. Although numbering only a few thousand, they had 23 charitable organizations, including funds for the sick, for needy brides, schooling for the poor, a free burial society and a fund for the Jews in Israel. Orthodox communities today have Gemilut Chassadim funds that lend money free of interest. Goods and services are also available for loan: in some communities one can find just about any item from cribs to power tools. The local Gemachs (commonly used acronym for Gemilut Chassadim) are often established and run by one or two people. Others are larger organizations involving many volunteers, some of which service many communities and are supported by charitable contributions. Yad Sarah, an organization in Israel, for example, lends medical equipment free of charge to anyone who requests the service. It has branches at most hospitals in Israel and in many neighborhoods throughout the country, and helps thousands of people every year.
In addition to volunteering time and energy, it is customary for observant Jews to donate ten percent of their income to charity. Giving charity and working for social justice have been hallmarks of the Jewish people from the very beginning. Our forefather Abraham, epitomized these qualities. Referring to Abraham, God says in Genesis: “I have given him special attention, so that he will command his children and his household after him, and they will keep God’s way, doing charity and justice.”
True to Abraham’s teachings, righteousness and justice have been the recurrent themes of Jewish life throughout the ages. The prophets repeatedly exhorted the Jewish people to care for the widow, the orphan and the poor and to pursue charity as a priority in life.
The Sages continued this tradition, teaching that: “The world stands on three things: The study of Torah, the worship of God, and bestowing kindness.
Maimonides writes in the Mishneh Torah, on Laws of the Festivals:
And when he eats and drinks, he is obligated to feed the stranger, the orphan and the widow, together with all the other unfortunate poor. However, one who closes the doors of his courtyard and eats and drinks himself, with his children and his wife, and does not feed the poor and the miserable — this is not the celebration of a mitzvah, rather the celebration of the stomach. And regarding such people the verse states, “Their sacrifices will be unto them like the bread of mourners, of which all who partake are defiled, because their bread was only for themselves.”
Strong words, indeed, but they are not mere sermonic hyperbole. This attitude of responsibility towards others is reflected in the codes of Jewish law and enshrined in the practices of the Jewish world. One month before Passover, for example, every Jewish community is obligated to collect money and food to distribute to the poor of that city for their holiday needs.
Celebrating the festivals today, Jewish families fulfill Maimonides’ mandate by inviting guests, especially those who are needy, to their homes. A travel guide has even been published for Jewish students, listing the phone numbers and addresses of families around the world who are willing to have them as their guests. The fact that they are total strangers is irrelevant: they are fellow Jews. In addition, hospitality committees in many synagogues arrange accommodation and meals for visitors to the community. For children growing up in traditional homes, having new faces at the dining room table on Sabbaths and holidays is the rule, rather than the exception.
The Hebrew word tzedakah is usually translated as charity, but there is a crucial difference between the two concepts. When we understand the word tzedakah, we learn a profound lesson about the Jewish attitude to giving. The root of the word tzedakah is tzedek, which means justice or righteousness. The word charity, however, carries intimations of benevolence. When we give tzedakah, we do not believe that we have gone above and beyond the call of duty; rather, we have simply fulfilled the demands of justice, we’ve done the right thing. This belief is based on the concept that everything that we possess is a gift from God, and He has specified that we should share that gift with others. Surely, if we share this gift, we cannot claim to be doing anything extraordinary, merely that which is morally correct. In fact, Jewish law mandates that the court estimate how much each individual is capable of donating to charity, and if they do not voluntarily give this amount, the court may force them to do so! This practice – which treats tzedakah as a fulfillment of justice rather than voluntary benevolence — was followed by Jewish communities for thousands of years.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch expressed the logic of giving in Jewish thought:
Why should God give you more than you need unless He intended to make you the administrator of the blessing for the benefit of others, the treasurer of His treasures? Every penny you can spare is not yours, but should become a tool for bringing blessing to others — and would you close your hand on something that is not yours?