I don't know how others consider charitable giving, but I am honestly confused about it. 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, only after I have made my Jewish gifts? Why am I giving in the first place? 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, 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 in order to take care of others who are less fortunate. 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, extending out into the Jewish community and then the world. Jewish law specifically recognizes that any needy person who lives in peaceful coexistence with us is a worthy charitable 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 or her former position. If a man has lost all of his clothing in a fire, we should help him purchase clothes. If he has lost his job, we should provide him with employment either directly or indirectly by helping him find work.
The Jewish sage Maimonides established specific parameters for giving, with the average acceptable gift as 10 percent and the ideal gift as 20 percent of our possessions. Jewish law is both practical and realistic in its demands, because it never requires us to become lacking or poor ourselves as a result of giving.
The critical questions we each need to answer are: Why do I give? What makes me want to give? Is it because of peer or professional pressure, social recognition or a genuine commitment to the cause?
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 that we open, rather than harden, our hearts -- because it is from our hearts, not our heads, that we are more inclined to see the needs of others and give willingly, meaningfully and generously.
During our lives we will have times when our resources and income may be limited. Some of us will struggle more than others. An unexpected tragedy or illness can make it nearly impossible to give. But Tzedakah is an equal opportunity mitzvah and applies to everyone, no matter how great or small our portion.
If we are unable to give of our money, we can give of our time, talents and wisdom. Our sages assured us that we are all capable of giving, even one who receives tzedakah, when they said: "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 email@example.com.