Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have been doing some thinking about my tzedakah giving situation. I’m not in the category of the rich, but I’m certainly very comfortable. I donate money to charity every year, and also spend lots of money on cars, vacations and the nice things in life, which I have worked hard to earn. Lately I’ve been wondering if I’m doing enough for tzedakah, and if maybe some of the luxuries I enjoy should instead be replaced by an increase in my giving. But where does one draw the line?
Let me begin by relating a beautiful story which illustrates to what great lengths members of our people have gone for tzedakah.
Some 70 years ago in Jerusalem lived Yosef, a very pious Jew who, despite his own very limited means, gave very generously to tzedakah. One day he was approached by the local tzedakah collector who was trying to raise money for a man who was in dire need of a costly emergency surgery. Yosef checked his tzedakah box and found it empty, as he had already depleted his full ability to give that month, and profusely apologized that he simply had no more to give.
A moment after the collector left, Yosef ran after him and stopped him. He told the man that he made a calculation. Every week he was scrupulous to recite Kiddush over wine. Jewish law states that if one cannot afford wine, he may recite the Kiddush over challah instead. He calculated the cost of the wine per week and found that if he would recite Kiddush over the challah for the next 10 years and not purchase wine, he would save enough on the wine to pay for the man’s operation. If another Jew is in need and this may save his life, then he, Yosef, feels he can’t afford the wine, and the collector should take a loan guaranteed by Yosef for the amount needed. He would pay it back over the next 10 years, with the wine savings, which he did.
A rabbi once told this story to a group in Jerusalem, and afterward a man came forward and said he was the nephew of Yosef. Until that moment he had never understood the mystery of his uncle’s strange custom to recite the Kiddush over challah and not wine, and now he was so proud to know the reason!
Imagine, a 10-year sacrifice like that for a man he had never met!!
The Jewish people have always given far above and beyond the call of duty, and even until today we are, per capita, way beyond the giving of any other ethnic or other group in the United States or the world, as many studies have shown. Today’s American Jews are, thank G-d, more affluent than we have ever been in our long Diaspora history.
The question is, do we still have the same feeling of collective responsibility to our fellow Jews as did Yosef in the above story, and many among our people since we have been a nation?
Hundreds of millions of Jewish dollars are given to myriad good causes every year, so why are so many thousands of Jews living far below the poverty level in Israel and other parts of the world? Why are our educational institutions, day schools and outreach organizations having such a difficult time covering their shoestring budgets, the teachers being terribly underpaid and at times not paid on time or at all? The list goes on and on, and shows that somehow, our people need to, perhaps, consider a priority shift. We simply can’t afford to give hundreds of millions to the arts and other worthy causes when so many of our own people are being lost to apathy and assimilation, or in states of poverty.
Everyone who works hard and does well certainly may enjoy the fruits of their labors. But a sense of priority, caring and responsibility needs to be there. We Jews are all one family, and many in our family are far from the material and spiritual affluence that many of us enjoy.
I learned a profound lesson from a pious woman in Jerusalem. Whenever she made a family simcha, wedding, bar mitzvah, etc., she always helped cover a similar simcha for a needy family who could not afford to do it on their own.
The Torah’s concept of maaser, or tithing one-tenth of one’s earnings to tzedakah, is a wonderful guideline for giving. Those who do so report that they get a lot more than they give and that it is one of the most rewarding aspects of their lives.
Please contact your rabbinic authority to help you set specific guidelines to giving, as the parameters of giving are outlined in our holy Torah as are other areas of everyday life. There are also multiple giving possibilities through your local Jewish Federation.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of Dallas Area Torah Association.