Tzedakah Begins With Our "Family":
"Surely you should divide your bread with the hungry, and bring the poor that are cast out into your home; when you see the naked, cover him; and do not hide yourself from your own kin!" (Isaiah 58:7)
There are some individuals who find it easier to have compassion and concern for those who are far away than for those who are close to them. They see imperfections in those around them, and they form a romantic, idealized picture of those in the distance. This distorted view can lead them to ignore the suffering of their own family, community, and people. Unfortunately, there are a number of Jews who are in this category. In their view, to be "universal" is to love and help all the peoples of the earth with the exception of the Jewish people. The Torah, however, has a different approach. For example, the Torah teaches that our tzedekah obligations begin at "home" - with our relatives, community, and people. A source for this teaching can be found in the following verse:
"If there shall be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities, in the Land that the Compassionate One, your God, gives you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother" (Deuteronomy 15:7).
As we discussed in our previous letters, our tzedakah obligations extend beyond the Family of Israel. We must first, however, begin with the Family of Israel, as our love and caring should not, God forbid, exclude our own brethren! In our previous letters, we also discussed the following additional reason for beginning with the Family of Israel: According to the Prophets of Israel, the goal of human history is a more caring and compassionate world; however, the Prophets teach that the best and most humble way for our small "Family of Israel" to make a meaningful contribution towards this goal is to serve as a social model. In this way, the other "families" of the earth will be inspired by our example. And you do not have to be a sociologist to realize that if the Family of Israel neglects its own poor, it cannot properly serve as an example to "all the families of the earth" (Genesis 12:3).
Rabbi Aryeh Levine of Jerusalem - affectionately known as "Reb Aryeh" - was a great tzaddik of the 20th century whose life can serve as an example of the above teachings. Reb Aryeh's love and compassion for human beings began with his own people, and he firmly believed in their unique spiritual destiny. Yet this love and compassion extended to all peoples. For example, Reb Aryeh became the unofficial chaplain of the Jewish prisoners during the era when the British imprisoned many Jews who were helping Jewish families fleeing persecution in Europe to enter the Land of Zion. Reb Aryeh's intense love and devotion to the Jewish prisoners was noticed by the Arab prisoners. Although they had their own Muslim chaplain, they wanted to experience the special empathy and kindness of Reb Aryeh. When he was asked if he would also visit the Arab prisoners, he readily agreed, and he reminded the British prison officials: "They too are created in the Divine image."
It is told that a certain man once came to Reb Aryeh' house and wished to give him a generous donation for his yeshiva. Reb Aryeh, however, would not take the contribution, and he said, "For you, it is forbidden to give any contribution." The man was amazed to hear this. "Why?" he demanded. "I am a man of means, you know." Reb Aryeh replied, "You have relatives and family members whose situation is quite distressing. As long as you do not help them I may not take your donation. The Torah says plainly, 'Do not hide yourself from your own kin' (Isaiah 58:7)."
Reb Aryeh understood that tzedakah begins at home, and as the following story indicates, he also understood that tzedakah does not end at home: When the news reached Israel of the massacre in the African country of Biafra, a campaign for rescue funds was started. As soon as Reb Aryeh heard of it, he asked the campaign manager to be kind enough to take his contribution too. When the representative of Israel returned home from his trip, he went to Reb Aryeh and told him all that his eyes had seen - all the terrible suffering, and the help that Israel had given. Reb Aryeh told him, "You have sanctified Hashem's Name in the world." And he doubled his contribution to the fund.
Yes, we begin with the Family of Israel, but since all human beings are the descendants of Adam and Eve, we also remember that we have an extended family.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. The Satmar Chassidic community in Williamsburg founded "Hatzoloh" - the volunteer ambulance corps, and branches were later established in other Torah observant communities. The Jewish Week of New York (Feb. 13, 2004) described how Hatzoloh inspired an African American leader in Brooklyn to start a similar ambulance corps in "Bedford Stuyvesant" - an African American neighborhood in Brooklyn.James Robinson, who founded the "Bed-Stuy Corps" with Joe Perez, said he was inspired by Hatzoloh during his long career with the city’s Emergency Medical Service: “I was amazed that every time I would respond to a call in a Jewish neighborhood, the patient had already been removed by Hatzoloh. In 1998, I decided to see if I can do it in Bed-Stuy. Now I try to pattern everything I do after Hatzoloh." The Jewish Week also reported that a number of Torah-observant Jews, most of them Chassidic, have volunteered to help the new ambulance corps in Bed-Stuy.
2. For further study on our tzedekah obligations to non-Jews, see Letter 61 of this series which is titled, "Extending the Tzedakah Mandate." It also explores the importance of serving as a social model.
3. The stories about Rabbi Aryeh Levine are found in the biography about him titled, "A Tzaddik in Our Time" by Simcha Raz, Feldheim Publishers: www.feldheim.com .
Hazon - Our Universal Vision: www.shemayisrael.co.il/publicat/hazon/