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Jewish Journal

Focus on Philanthropy

Tzedakah Serves as Equal Opportunity Mitzvah

by Amy Hirshberg Lederman

July 27, 2006 | 8:00 pm

I opened my mailbox to find several letters, a few bills and a host of requests for donations from various organizations that I have supported over the years. Because I am a stickler for organization (although some would call me Type A obsessive), I sort the letters, place the bills in a folder marked "Look at me soon!" and the appeals for donations in one marked "Save the World." Between the needs of my local community, the Jewish community, our country and the world at large, I am seriously thinking about renting a storage unit for the hundreds of requests that I receive annually.

I don't know about how others think about gift giving, but I am honestly confused about it myself. Year after year, questions continue to gnaw at me like: What is the right amount for a gift? Should I support Jewish organizations first and then donate to other charities, like my alma mater or the Red Cross, only after I have made my Jewish gifts?

And while I'm being candid, I sometimes wonder: Why am I giving in the first place? Is it because of peer or professional pressure, social recognition or a genuine commitment to the cause? Does it need to hurt for my gift to be meaningful? Am I willing to give up something -- a dinner out, theater tickets, a trip -- to make a more substantial contribution this year?

Tzedakah, or the Jewish commandment to give, has been a quintessential Jewish value since the beginning of Jewish time. 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).

Tzedakah is the counterpart to tikkun olam, the Jewish obligation to repair the world. Both affirm our responsibility to distribute a part of what we have to take care of others who are less fortunate than we. Both are grounded in the idea that individual wealth is neither a right nor a privilege but a form of stewardship for which we are charged, as agents of God, to care for the world in which we live.

These obligations operate in concentric circles -- originating within our own home and family and extending out into the Jewish community. Yet Jewish law specifically recognizes that any needy person who lives in peaceful coexistence with us is a worthy charity recipient. The Talmud teaches that we should help support the poor even outside our own community, because of the "ways of peace" (Gittin 59 b).

Jewish law is fairly specific in its answer to the question of what we should give. Ideally, we are expected to give what is needed to help restore a poor person to his former position. If a man has lost all of his clothing in a fire, we should help him purchase suitable clothes. If he has lost his job, we should provide him with employment either directly or indirectly by helping him find work.

But Jewish law is both practical and realistic in its demands, for while it requires us to give the needy what they lack, it does not require us to make them rich or to become poor ourselves as a result of giving.

But how much giving is enough giving? Should I have to forgo something I want in order to make a pledge? While no one can ever really answer that question for us, the Jewish philosopher and sage Maimonides provides us with specific parameters for giving. The ideal gift is 20 percent of our possessions, although the average acceptable gift is 10 percent.

But what about our reasons for giving, the "why" behind the gift. Although no one can dictate the feelings we should have when we give, I am inspired by the words of Moses when he told the Israelites to bring gifts to build the Tabernacle, saying: "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 us to look into our hearts -- where our intuitive, spiritual and emotional voices are most clearly heard. We open, rather than harden our hearts to those in need. In doing so, we are more inclined to give willingly, meaningfully and generously.

Since each of us has different resources, property and income, our gifts will differ. But tzedakah is an "equal opportunity mitzvah" and applies to everyone, no matter how great or small our portion. Our sages assured us that we are all capable of giving, even one who receives tzedakah, with the words: "To the one who is eager to give, God provides the means."

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney. She can be reached at alederman@cox.net.

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