Extending the Mitzvah of Tzedakah

The Journey to Unity - 61

Extending The Tzedakah Mandate:

This letter is dedicated to the memory of my good friend, Paul Greenberg - Aharon Shaul Ben Binyamin - a dedicated social activist who cherished the mitzvah of tzedakah.

Dear Friends,

As we discussed in the previous letter, "Uniting the Rich and the Poor," the mitzvah of tzedakah also obligates us to help the needy non-Jewish residents within our land, as it is written:

"If your brother becomes impoverished and loses the ability to support himself in the community, you shall strengthen him - including the convert or Gentile resident - so that he can live with you." (Leviticus 25:35)

The Gentile resident mentioned in the above verse is known in Hebrew as a "ger toshav" - the Gentile who accepts the universal moral code and who can therefore dwell with us in the Holy Land. Concerning the ger toshav, Maimonides writes in his code of Jewish law, Mishnah Torah:

"In regard to respect and honor and also in regard to tzedakah, a ger toshav is to be treated as an Israelite" (The Laws of Kings, 10:12).

The sources that we have studied so far in this series indicate that we have an obligation to give tzedakah to the needy of our own people, as well as to the Gentiles who dwell among us. We do not find within the Torah, however, that we have a specific obligation to give tzedakah to the needy among all the nations of the world. One possible reason why the Torah does not impose such an enormous obligation on the Jewish people is because of our small size, as it is written: "Not because you are more numerous than all the peoples did the Compassionate One desire you and choose you, for you are the fewest of all the peoples" (Deuteronomy 7:7). The Compassionate One does not impose an obligation which is impossible to fulfill, and it simply would not be feasible for the "fewest of all the peoples" to be given the responsibility to feed, clothe, and house the needy of the entire world! Even today, the approximately 13 million Jews in the world are a fraction of one percent of the world's population; moreover, it is a great challenge just to take care of our own needy. For example, the media has reported on the problems of the Jewish poor in the United States, the world's most prosperous nation, and poverty is also a serious social problem within the State of Israel.

The Compassionate One therefore gave us a different way of dealing with the social problems of the world. Our small people was given the Divine mandate to develop a loving, just, and holy society which can serve as a social model for all the peoples of the earth. In this way, they will be inspired to emulate our example, including our social laws regarding tzedekah. As Moses, our Teacher, said to us in his farewell address before we entered the Promised Land:

"See, I have taught you decrees and social laws, as the Compassionate One, my God has commanded me, to do so in the midst of the Land to which you come to possess it. You shall safeguard and perform them, for it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these decrees and who shall say, 'Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation.' " (Deuteronomy 4:5,6)

In this spirit, the Prophet Isaiah proclaimed the Divine message that we are to become a "light to the nations" (Isaiah 42:6), and when we achieve this goal, we will merit the fulfillment of the Divine promise that "nations will walk by your light, and sovereigns by the glow of your dawn" (Ibid 60:3). Our primary assignment is not to collectively spread out among the nations and preach the truth of the Torah. Instead, our Divine assignment is to nurture the seed of the Divine teaching implanted within us: "To keep the way of the Compassionate One through doing acts of tzedakah and justice" (Genesis 18:19). In this way, we will become a universal model of the Torah's principle of "tzedek" - the higher and loving form of Divine justice which entitles each creature to receive what it needs in order to fulfill its purpose within the creation. Other societies will then learn from our example, as the Prophet foretold, "Nations will perceive your tzedek" (Isaiah 62:2). When we achieve our universal goal, Zion will become the spiritual center for all the peoples, and "From Zion will go forth Torah and the word of the Compassionate One from Jerusalem" (Isaiah 2:3).

When we did not fulfill all the precepts of the Torah, we went into exile. The exile provides us with an opportunity for inner purification and renewal, and it also enables us in a limited way to have a positive influence on our non-Jewish neighbors, even though we no longer have the ability to develop a model society in our own land. The dispersion of our people to many lands, however, caused our ancestors to live among pagan peoples who were not yet collectively committed to the universal moral code. Among them were needy individuals who began to approach us for assistance. Our sages therefore extended the mitzvah of tzedakah to include helping our needy non-Jewish neighbors. Our sages found a source for this enactment in the following Torah principle: "shalom" - peace and harmony. The word "shalom" is derived from the Hebrew word "shalem" - whole, complete. It therefore refers not only to peace, but also to harmony and unity. The sages decided that we should also give tzedakah to our non-Jewish neighbors in the lands of our dispersion, even when they were not yet following the universal moral code, as this would increase shalom in the world. Maimonides discusses their decision in his Mishneh Torah:

"Our sages commanded us (Gittin 61a) to visit idolaters when they are sick, to bury their dead just as we bury the Jewish dead, and to support their poor together with the Jewish poor for the sake of the ways of shalom." (The Laws of Kings 10:12)

Maimonides then cites two verses which remind us that, wherever we live, we are to follow the unifying ways of shalom. The first verse states: "The Compassionate One is good to all, and His compassion is over all His works" (Psalm 145:9). I asked my teachers why Maimonides cites this verse, since it does not directly refer to shalom. Based on my discussion with my teachers, I would like to share with you the following answer: This verse describes how the Compassionate One increases shalom in the world through extending the Divine goodness and compassion to "all" creatures, without discrimination.

The second verse cited by Maimonides is from a passage which describes the wisdom of Torah, and it states: "Her ways are pleasant ways and all her paths are shalom" (Proverbs 3:17)." This verse is teaching us that shalom is an underlying principle of the mitzvos of the Torah. In fact, the Talmud states, "The entire Torah is for the sake of the ways of shalom" (Gittin 59b). In his explanation of this teaching, Maimonides writes in his Mishneh Torah:

"Great is shalom, as the whole Torah was given in order to promote shalom in the world, as it is stated, 'Her ways are pleasant ways and all her paths are shalom. ' " (The Laws of Chanukah 4:14)

When we are living among the nations, we are to exend our tzedakah obligations to our Gentile neighbors even when they are not fulfilling all the laws of the universal moral code. For acts of tzedakah promote shalom in the world, as the Prophet proclaims, "And the act of tzedakah shall bring shalom" (Isaiah 32:17).

Much Shalom,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

Related Stories and Comments:

1. The wise and just rule of King Solomon attracted many distinguished visitors to Jerusalem, as it is written, "They came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all the sovereigns of the earth who had heard of his wisdom (1 Kings 5:10-14). Our Scriptures also record that a wise queen came to visit Solomon, for she heard that he dedicated his wisdom, power and fame to the service of Hashem - the Compassionate One: "The Queen of Sheba heard of Solomon's fame, that it was for the name of Hashem, and she came to test him with riddles" (ibid 10:1). After Solomon gave her the solutions to all her questions, she said, "True was the word that I had heard in my country about your words and your wisdom! I had not believed the words until I came and my own eyes saw; and behold - even the half of it was not told to me! You have surpassed in wisdom and goodness the report that I had heard" (10:6,7). She was particularly impressed by his just and righteous reign which included a concern for tzedakah, and she therefore gave him the following blessing: "May Hashem, your God, be blessed, Who has chosen you, to place you upon the throne of Israel: in the everlasting love of Hashem for Israel He has established you as king, to do justice and tzedakah" (ibid 10:9).

2. A Gentile once asked a Chassidic rebbe why Jews don't proselytize. The rebbe answered that a candle glows without making an effort to give off light. The followers of a spiritual tradition should do the same, he added. The Rebbe' response reminds us that the main role of our people is not to "preach" to the Gentiles, but to serve as a social example. This is a major reason why we should not neglect the tzedakah needs of our own people, for if we neglect our own poor, then how can we serve as an example to others?

3. Throughout the ages, the Jewish devotion to tzedekah inspired good people in other societies. For example, George Cooper Pardee, a progressive governor of California in the early 20th century, once said, "The Jew takes care of his own poor and helps to care for other peoples' poor." (From "The Jew and Civilization" by Ada Sterling, page 121 - Cited in "Permission to Receive" by Lawrence Kelemen)

4. One of the great authorities of Torah law in the 20th century was Rav Moshe Feinstein. As a leader of the Jewish people, he was very involved with their tzedakah needs. In the 1930's, he immigrated to the United States in order to escape from the religious persecution in the former Soviet Union, and he lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In addition to the tzedakah that he gave to his own people, he also gave tzedakah to non-Jews, and the ArtScroll biography of Rav Moshe Feinstein cites the following example:

"Often he would sit with a pile of charity envelopes that had come in the mail and place a specific amount in each...Among the organizations Reb Moshe sent to were American institutions for the physically handicapped and mentally ill. He felt it an obligation to respond to such requests to show that religious Jews - and rabbis in particular - respected the work of these causes." ("Reb Moshe" by Rabbi Shimon Finkelman - courtesy of the copyright holder, ArtScroll/Mesorah. )

Hazon - Our Universal Vision": www.shemayisrael.co.il/publicat/hazon/