November 19, 2008
Can we help?
These bids for help come in every year at about this time, but this year they feel different. We all are facing the reality that these are really hard times -- for everyone, it seems -- and there's a note of desperation in these letters, a fear of becoming destitute. In fact, it's probably a feeling most of us share to some degree, whether when we look at our 401(k)s (don't!), or hear from our relatives (do!), or watch friends figure out how to get unemployment checks ... or talk to someone who has lost their home to foreclosure.
So this year, all those pleas for funds have to be weighed against our anxieties. And the nagging question inside us must be: Should we hold back on our giving because what we have now might not last? And when we give, whom should we give to? Who are the neediest?
In his recently released "A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 2: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself," (Bell Tower), Rabbi Joseph Telushkin quotes the familiar talmudic teaching: "Charity is equal in importance to all the other commandments combined." (Bava Bathra 9a). But Telushkin also goes on to quote Maimonides: "It is our duty to be more careful in the performance of charity than in the performance of any other positive commandment." (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:1).
In our era, Telushkin points out, we equate charitable giving to cultural causes -- museums, orchestras, universities -- as much as to helping the poor. But it is the latter that the Bible refers to exclusively in the teachings on tzedakah. For a person in need, the Bible commands, "You shall open, yes, open, your hand to him," and not "harden your heart nor shut your hand against your needy brother" (Deuteronomy 15:7-8). And the need for such generosity is so drilled into the Jewish soul that, as Telushkin paraphrases Maimonides, "Not giving tzedakah constitutes such cruel and un-Jewish behavior that we should question the Jewishness of one who acts in this way."
The Shulchan Arukh assures us: "No person will become poor because of giving charity."
So does this mean the art museum is out and the homeless shelter is this year's beneficiary? That the temple coffers come before the school or after? What do we value most? And should we really decide? Because as we open our checkbooks this year and attempt to give back to the world, shouldn't we consider sustenance from all angles?
High on our list, of course, should be those whose very lives depend upon our help. But this also is not a time to extinguish the many institutions that have risen up to create a civil society. The arts nourish the soul, schools nurture the potential of our youth, but they also promote the scientific and creative research that will secure our future. And the synagogue is one place where we can turn when we need caring most.
Our relationship with Israel also cannot be lost in the mix -- its need for health and security doesn't disappear while our attention is focused elsewhere.
And those animals in the zoo -- should they be left out?
To be fair, aren't times of hardship when we should be giving the most? And not just to one place?
I have a friend who runs an institute for the deaf -- a place that gives the gift of communication to people who might otherwise be cut off from the world. She recently told me of a single day in the life of her institute: A check for $1 million came in from a major donor. Cause for great celebration. Then a look at the endowment showed a $1 million loss -- just that same day. What do you do?
As the articles in this special Giving Guide illustrate, everyone is trying to answer all the questions I'm proposing here. And there are no easy answers.
But I would suggest this. This is the time to step up to the plate. And there are ways to do it even as we tighten our belts. We can think hard before we buy that fancy pair of shoes and get something more practical; then take that extra money left over -- and give it away. Think again before we allocate fun money and find ways to share the pleasures with those who haven't got the spare cash. We can take the bus once in a while and spend the gas savings on a person in need. Even small economies can turn into great gifts.
This is a time when, at whatever level we can, we should all continue to respond to the pleas for help from charities of all kinds -- and give to our capacity, and maybe a little more. Because, as the Shulchan Arukh assures us, and as Telushkin notes, "No person will become poor because of giving charity."