August 24, 2000
Charity Begins at Home
Parashat Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)
Morris Leven-ger was a wealthy, pious Jew who lived in Atlan-ta, Georgia, and attended synagogue daily before going to work. One day the rabbi asked for his help with scholarships for youngsters whose families could not afford tuition for Jewish day schools.
"Rabbi," he said, "I will sponsor two students. Just make the best deal you can with the school, try to get the parents to help out and I will cover the rest of the costs."
According to Rabbi Emanuel Feldman ("Tales Out of Shul"), that is how it all began. Within a few years, the sponsorship of two students increased to three, then to four, and at one point Morris Levenger was underwriting 10 boys and two girls from Atlanta who were studying at advanced Torah schools in Baltimore. He kept this up for years.
Levenger played a major role in the religious development of Atlanta, though he never thought of it that way. What distinguished him above all else was that not a soul knew of his kindness - not the students nor their parents - only his rabbi and God.
Philanthropy isn't new to the Jewish people. Kind-hearted people like Levenger are not the exception to the rule; rather, they are the rule. We can justly take pride in the amount of charity that the Jewish community contributes annually to all causes.
Not only are Jews exceptionally charitable, but we actually taught the rest of the world the meaning of the term "tithing," which finds its origin in this week's Torah portion.
Tithing, however, is a little more complex than popular usage would indicate. The Torah states, "You must surely tithe all the produce of your planting that your field yields on a yearly basis" (Deuteronomy 14:22). Judaism explains that in the Biblical era, tithing was an annual law that followed the seven-year sabbatical cycle. In the first, second, fourth and fifth years of the seven-year cycle, one brought maaser sheni (second tithe). In the third and sixth year of the cycle, maaser sheni was replaced with maaser ani (tithe for the poor).
Maaser sheni was unusual in that it was brought to Jerusalem and eaten by its owner together with his family. Maaser ani was given directly to the poor, who could eat it wherever they wished. At first glance, the order of these tithes seems backward. Morality and simple human sensitivity dictates that one should be concerned first with providing food for the poor before enjoying one's bounty in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Zev Leff, one of the finest Bible teachers I ever had, resolved this troubling question by quoting a passage from Maimonides' Laws of Charity. Maimonides ruled that one must not only be generous but one also must "give with a friendly countenance and joyfully" (Laws of Charity 10:4). Furthermore, Rabbi Leff noted, whenever the Bible refers to the mitzvah of kindness, it doesn't say, "do kindness." "To do" is the expression reserved for justice. Kindness, however, always is expressed in the words of the prophet Micha (Micha 6:8) who instructs us to "love kindness."
Rabbi Leff suggested that this explains the order of the tithes. Judaism recognizes that people only impart a friendly countenance if they are happy. Maaser sheni precedes the tithe to the poor for that very reason. Jews brought their bounty to Jerusalem to rejoice, recognizing that God is the source of their success. Once they realize the source of their bounty, they can share their gifts with a "friendly countenance and joyfully." Perhaps we can now appreciate the aphorism that declares, "Charity begins at home." In Judaism, the home not only must teach tithing, it must also teach how to tithe with a smile.
Rabbi Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.