Rabbi Baht Yameem Weis
“If there is a needy person among you, one of your kin in any of your settlements in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin. Rather you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need…Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in your work and everything you put your hand to.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-10)
From a young age we are told of the importance of tzedakah, of giving charity. But tzedakah is much more than charity. The word tzedakah literally means righteousness and comes from the root-tzedek-justice. Tzedakah can be translated as “righteous giving.” Giving tzedakah is not just donating money but rather, acting righteously in the world. In next week’s Torah portion, Shoftim we will read the words Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof: Justice, Justice, you shall pursue.” Maybe it is not a coincidence that so many Jews are lawyers! After all, the Torah consists of numerous laws and commands us to pursue social justice.
Whether we act righteously by donating money to charities we feel are deserving, by volunteering our time to social causes we believe in or engaging in advocacy work, tzedekah is a core Jewish value.
When Aaron asked the Israelites to donate all their gold to the building of the golden calf, they did not hesitate. When Moses asked the Israelites to make voluntary contributions to the construction of the sanctuary, they gave so willingly that Moses had to ask them to stop. He had too much! What a great problem to have!
If there are people in our community in need, tzedakah is not just a nice thing to do, it is our ethical duty to respond to that need. It is easy to grow busy with our own lives, we worry about caring for our families, paying our bills, getting enough rest and exercise, but there is always room for us to share our resources and give back. And we never know when we may go from being the giver to the recipient. Those who have more are expected to share it with those who have less. From the orphan to the widow to the stranger, we have an obligation to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves.
This Sunday, we begin the month of Elul. Elul is our preparatory month before the High Holy Days. We are asked to reflect on the past year and take a chesbon ha-nefesh, a personal accounting of how well we are doing in our lives. Before we stand in judgment, perhaps before God, perhaps before ourselves and our conscience we have a chance to temper the decree by engaging in Tefilah, Tzedakah and Teshuvah. Prayer, Righteousness and Repentance.
Prayer is not enough. And Repentance is only part of the package. Our actions count. Tzedakah is not just writing a check, it’s the values we believe in and the stands that we take. Living in the DC area presents us with a myriad of opportunities to involve ourselves in causes we believe in. The word Re’eh literally means “see”, to look deeper at issues and to not overlook those in our community that do not have the same freedoms that we have.
May we begin this season of introspection looking deep within ourselves and out into our community to find ways that we can engage in acts of tzedekah, righteousness, so that all people may live a life of equality and justice.