I think I may have hit a new low. It felt as if I was channeling my parents as I heard myself complaining about how I miss the “good old days” — when people actually wrote me letters and cards, rather than texting me on my cell or sending online evites to parties and events. Call me old fashioned, but there’s something nice about opening up a letter and reading a handwritten note from a friend. Nowadays, the only thing that fills my mailbox are bills and a host of requests for donations from organizations in need of help.
Over the past few years, those requests have grown exponentially, especially in light of the economic crisis that our country has been living through. Unemployment is at a record high, the housing market has suffered a devastating blow, and many Americans have lost their homes, medical coverage and confidence that they will be able to hold their lives and families together. All of which makes me feel more responsible to give to worthy organizations that are struggling to keep their doors open to the many who need their help.
Which leads me to ask some hard questions about charitable giving: How much should I give? Should it be related to the amount I earn? How do I prioritize my gifts? Should I support Jewish organizations first and then donate to other charities after, if I have anything left? Should I give up something I enjoy — a dinner out, theater tickets, a trip — to make a more substantial contribution this year?
There is no word for charity in Hebrew. Instead, we speak of tzedakah, which literally means “righteousness.” Tzedakah is the counterpart to tikkun olam, the Jewish obligation to act as God’s partner in repairing the world. Both affirm our responsibility to distribute a part of what we have to take care of others because our own wealth is viewed, not as a right or entitlement, but as a form of responsibility and stewardship to care for the world. The Torah teaches: “If there is a needy person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities in the Land that God has given you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against him. Rather, you shall open your hand and lend him whatever he is lacking” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).
Jewish law is fairly specific in its answer to the question of the amount we should give. Maimonides established specific parameters for giving: 10 percent is average, 20 percent is ideal, but we should not give more, so that we don’t become impoverished ourselves.
But 10 percent of what — gross pay, net income, your entire estate? While there are differing opinions, it is generally accepted that maaser (tithing) is calculated based on net income. Think of it like this: God is your business partner, and you can deduct the same business expenses, such as income and sales taxes, insurance payments and travel expenses, that you would in any legal partnership. If you want to learn more, you can go online and find a maaser calculator to figure it out.
In terms of prioritizing our gifts, the general rule is that “the poor of your own town come before the poor of any other town,” but priority is given to the poor living in the land of Israel. We start with our own family, town and community and then reach out into the larger world, which includes Jews and non-Jews alike. The Talmud specifically recognizes that any needy person who lives peacefully with us is worthy of charity because of the “ways of peace.”
Another bit of wisdom comes from the Chofetz Chaim, a pious 19th century rabbi and ethicist, who taught that it is better to give smaller sums frequently than a lump sum annually, in order to encourage us to regularly think about the needs of others.
But does giving tzedakah have to hurt? Should I be required to give up something I want in order to make a meaningful gift? The answer is no, and yes. To give in a Jewish way is to act out of a sense of justice and responsibility — not guilt or dread. Jews neither give because it feels good, nor until it hurts. We are obligated to give because the need exists. But if we have committed to giving by making a pledge, either privately (in our own minds) or publicly, we are obligated to fulfill it even it if “hurts.”
Moses offered the Israelites a wonderful piece of wisdom when he told them to bring gifts to build the Tabernacle: “Take from among you gifts to the Lord: everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them ...” (Exodus 35:5). When we give, Jewish tradition asks that we give from our hearts — because it is from our hearts that we need to lead, rather than our heads. When we look upon the world with heartfelt compassion, we are more inclined to see the real needs of others and make a gift that is truly meaningful.
During our lives we will have times when our income may be limited or our resources depleted. An unexpected tragedy, the loss of a job, or an illness can reduce our estate such that it seems nearly impossible to give. But tzedakah is an “equal opportunity mitzvah” and applies to everyone, no matter how much or how little we have. If we are unable to give of our money, we can give of our time, talents, wisdom and compassion. That is why our sages assured us that everyone is capable of giving, when they said: “To the one who is eager to give, God provides the means.”
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an award-winning, nationally syndicated columnist, author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney. Her book, “One God, Many Paths: Finding Meaning and Inspiration in Jewish Teachings” (Wheatmark, 2008) is available at amyhirshberglederman.com.