By Laura Seymour
We continue our exploration of tikkun olam. The Hebrew word tikkun means to “fix” or “heal” something that is broken; olam means “world.”
Tzedakah is the mitzvah of helping others. Although it is often translated as charity, which is viewed as a voluntary act, tzedakah is a responsibility for everyone, even the poor. The Hebrew root of tzedakah is tzedak, which means justice — it means helping others is the just thing to do. The Torah tells us how important helping those in need really is, but it also reminds us to care about the dignity of poor people.
Mitzvah hero of today’s world: Albert Einstein
Many people who know about Albert Einstein’s scientific accomplishments may be unaware of his dedication to social justice and tzedakah. He was born on March 14, 1879, in Germany, and did much of his work there until the rise of the Nazis.
The man who created the theory of relativity and changed the world of physics forever devoted much of his time to charitable acts. After winning the Nobel Prize in 1921, he visited the U.S. and actually spent much of his time explaining the need for the state of Israel and to raise funds to help settlers in Palestine.
Einstein helped found the International Rescue Committee in 1933 to help all refugees in need. He worked hard to help Jews and non-Jews in need. When Chaim Weizmann died, Einstein was asked to become the second president of Israel. Time Magazine named Albert Einstein “Man of the Century.”
In our ancestor’s footsteps: Maimonides
In his day, Maimonides (1135-1204) was a rabbi, philosopher, author, physician and community leader. He lived in Spain but was forced to leave and, in Egypt, became the physician to the royal family.
Maimonides wrote of how hard it was to be a physician and that he had to be up all hours of the night helping people. Despite his work as a doctor, Maimonides found time to help others. He wrote very important books on Jewish law and philosophy. His works have guided people in how to live as a Jew for centuries.
In his writings, Maimonides wrote of eight levels of tzedakah beginning with the lowest rung — giving reluctantly and with regret — to the highest — helping another to become self-supporting.
The information for this summer’s weekly themes comes from “Jewish Heroes Jewish Values — Living Mitzvot in Today’s World” by Barry L. Schwartz, published by Behrman House, Inc., 1996.
Family talk time
- Tzedakah is a commandment. Should we be commanded to give and to help others? Or should we do it because we want to?
- Why should poor people be commanded to give to others? How do you decide how much to give, especially when you are needy?
- The root word for tzedakah is tzedak (justice). What does justice have to do with giving to others? Is there a “fair” way to give or to be sure everyone has what they need?
- Sometimes people feel embarrassed or bad when you try to give to them. Why would they feel this way? How can you give to people so that they don’t feel embarrassed or bad?
Laura Seymour is director of youth and camping services at the Aaron Family JCC.