Introduction: In our letter, “The Choosing People” (25a), we described how Avraham, the forefather of our people, chose the Compassionate One. Avraham, however, not only chose to acknowledge the “existence” of the Compassionate One, he also chose the “way” of the Compassionate One. As we shall discuss in this letter, the way of the Compassionate One is through tzedakah – the nurturing of life through sharing our resources with those in need, and through mishpat – the protection of life through avoiding any form of injustice.
The word tzedakah is derived from tzedek – a biblical term for justice. Why is the sharing of our resources with those in need viewed as an act of justice? As we explained in Letter 14 – “The Steps of Our Path” - tzedek refers to the Divine plan whereby each creature is “entitled” to receive the nurturing and protection it needs in order to fulfill its purpose within the creation. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch)
After the Compassionate One mentions that Avraham will be the founder of a great nation which will become a blessing to all the families of the earth, the Compassionate One indicates why Avraham merited this special relationship: “For I have known him because he commands his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Compassionate One - to do tzedakah and mishpat” (Genesis 18:19). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers the following commentary on this statement:
“To do tzedakah” - It is the Jewish conception of tzedakah which Avraham is to recommend to his children; it is not that ‘charity’ which makes the giver proud and humbles the recipient, nor is it that care for the ‘lower classes’ designed to protect the rich from the bitter anger of the destitute and despairing. It is rather that ‘act of duty’ to which every necessitous person is given by God the right to claim. This mitzvah enables the poor to stand upright before the rich, and it makes the rich aware that they are the administrators of a treasury which belongs to the poor. (The Pentateuch - translation and commentary by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch)
The poor are justly entitled to assistance from the rich, for the rich are administrators of a treasury which “belongs” to the poor. As the Compassionate One proclaimed:
"Mine is the silver, and Mine is the gold - the word of the Compassionate One, God of all the hosts of creation." (Haggai 2:8)
Our resources belong to the Compassionate One, God of all the hosts of creation! We are therefore the custodians and not the owners of the resources within our possession.
This teaching is expressed in a noted work on halacha – the detailed requirements of the Torah path:
“A person should not allow in his heart the thought, ‘How can I cause myself a loss of money by giving to the poor?’ For he should know that the money is not his, as it is deposited with him in order that he should do the will of the One Who placed it with him. And it is His will that it be shared with the poor.” (The Tur, Yoreh Deah 247:3 - the Laws of Tzedakah)
Rabbi Elazar of Bartosa excelled in performing the mitzvah of tzedakah, states the Talmud (Taanis 24a), as he felt that all his money and resources were on loan to him for the purpose of helping the children of the Compassionate One. His devotion to tzedakah was expressed in the teaching that is cited in his name (Pirkei Avos 3:8):
“Give Him (the Compassionate One) from His own, for you and your possessions are His. And so has David said: 'For everything is from You, and from Your own we have given You' (I Chronicles 29:14).”
Rebbeinu Yonah was a noted 13th century sage, and in his commentary on the above teaching of Rabbi Elazar, he reminds us that all of a person's money is given to him by the Compassionate One for safekeeping. But unlike the case with human despositors, the Compassionate One allows the human being to use part of the deposit for his personal needs. The human being should therefore greatly rejoice that he can personally benefit from part of this deposit in a dignified manner and that he can use the remainder to fulfill the will of its Owner.
The Creator gives us the right to use the resources He gives us, provided that we share these resources with those in need. In this spirit, Rabbi Hirsch wrote in his essay on tzedakah:
"You have nothing so long as you have it only for yourself; you only possess something when you share it with others." (Horeb)
This insight is the legacy that we received from our Avraham, our father. In upcoming letters, we will cite some historical examples of how we remained loyal to this legacy.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Teachings and Comments:
1. Maimonides discusses the mitzvah of tzedakah in the “Mishneh Torah” – his classical work on halacha. He writes: “We are obligated to be more careful about the mitzvah of tzedakah than about all the other mitzvos of action, for tzedakah is a distinguishing characteristic of the descendants of Avraham, as it is written: ‘For I have known him because he commands his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Compassionate One to do tzedakah and mishpat.’ ” (Zeraim, Gifts to the Poor 10:1)
Maimonides also reminds us that the highest form of tzedakah is to give someone in need the means to support himself, so that this individual will not have to be dependent on the generosity of others (10:7).
2. The story is told about a chassid who presented a long list of personal requests to Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the Chassidic Rebbe who is the founder of Chabad Chassidus. After studying the list, the Rebbe said to the chassid, “It is apparent that you have given much thought to your needs on earth. Have you given equal thought to why you are needed on earth?”
3. The above story is taken from
the anthology of Torah teachings
on the mitzvah of tzedakah –
“The Tzedakah Treasury” by Rabbi
Avrohom Chaim Feuer (courtesy of
the copyright holder,
ArtScroll/Mesorah). This is a
practical book, as well as an
inspirational one. It deals with
the sort of questions that
conscientious people ask, such
as: How much must I give? What
are the priorities? Do I have
the right to turn down a
request? For further
4. For articles and stories about tzedakah from a previous series, visit the archive on our website. Most of the previous letters in our current series also appear in the archive: