Charity: the Greatest Test of All

By Michael Lawrence

In my years working in the nonprofit field I have been privileged to spend time with some remarkable philanthropic organizations and families who have been pioneers and leaders in global charitable giving. These are people thinking about how perhaps we (or others) can do things better. How can we improve lives and cement change in place where it is needed?

As is often the case, together with them we dream big but keep ourselves grounded. Often we accept we cannot make the world a perfect place but this doesn’t prevent us from making it a much better place.

Comes the Torah portion of Re’eh this Shabbat and gives us a taste of reality. “For destitute people will not cease to exist within the Land” (Chapter 15, Verse 11).

Here is a nation, forty years in the desert in which they were provided with miracles, food and water and heavenly-inspired military victories. As the People of Israel stand on the cusp of the Promised Land, God and Moses provide a reality check. It won’t be all smooth sailing in the homeland.

You will have those who will need a hand and ongoing support. There will always be people and families who cannot navigate life alone.

You – all of us – will need to be there for them. In every generation.

This week’s Parasha speaks boldly of our obligations to each other. It’s the philanthropist’s GPS and the development’s professional’s guidebook packed into just a few sentences.

During the Torah reading we are reminded of the shemitah (or seventh year of every seven-year cycle) throughout which our fields and orchards must not be worked. Like Shabbat, the weekly seventh day of rest for humanity, but here a year of rest for the fields, for nature and the environment. In that year, crops of the field and the orchard are free to take by anyone, specifically the poor of our communities.

Yet that seventh year has an even greater challenge to the community. “Every creditor shall remit his authority over what he has lent his fellow; he shall not press his fellow or his brother, for He has proclaimed a remission to Hashem”. (15:2)

This is arguably the greatest means of leveling the playing field. Even if just a little. The truest form of generosity. Turning a loan into a gift.

But the Torah understands human nature and no one can blame anyone for raising their hand to claim this mitzvah comes with all kinds of difficulties.

God recognizes the concerns but stands unrelentingly behind the poor and the struggling. “Beware lest there be a lawless thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year approaches, the remission year’, and you will look malevolently upon your destitute brother and refuse to give him – then he may appeal against you to Hashem, and it will be a sin upon you.” (15:9)

Do not look at your watch. Look at your sisters and brothers who need you now and who will need you tomorrow. Moreover says the Torah this week, if you give to them despite the seventh year approaching, you will be blessed and your gain will be greater than your loss.

This special challenge is being laid down in front of us.

This very specific seventh-year loan removal system is supported in the Parasha by much more wide-ranging, equally explicit guidelines the charitable of all we have worked hard for and been blessed with.

As Moses prepares to leave the Children of Israel in the hands of a new leader, he chooses tzedakah (charity) as one of the central foci of the lives and societies they will build after crossing the Jordan River into the Land of Israel.

Across just a few lines, Verses 7-11 of Chapter 15, we are left with no illusion as to our responsibilities to each other.

“If there shall be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities, in your Land that Hashem, your God, gives you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother. Rather you shall open your hand to him… You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your poor, and to your destitute in your Land”.

This is an unambiguous campaign for selfless giving, right there in our weekly Torah portion.

Charity is truly a test. We must never take generosity for granted – not generosity of resources, nor of time, nor of spirit. What a privilege it is to live and serve the global Jewish community among philanthropic giants (each within their own means), those who give and continue to give even in most unpredictable times, times of change and of risk.

They have etched the words of our tradition on their hearts and are leading us all in the spirit of unity and toward better futures for all.

Michael Lawrence has been Financial Resource Development Unit Head and Chief Development Officer at The Jewish Agency for Israel since 2016. He is a qualified lawyer in Israel and in his native New Zealand and has lived in Israel since 2000.

He is the author of “Nonprofit Parasha” a weekly look at Philanthropy, Leadership and Community in the Torah portion.