[Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma Now, a curated monthly conversation on Jewish Sensibilities. These articles, examining the differences between philanthropy and tzedakah, originally appeared in October 2001.]
Rabbi Akiva taught… eveything is measured according to the number of deeds. (Pirke Avot 3:24)
Is it the number of deeds we do or the magnitude of those deeds that counts? Maimonides chooses the first option, explaining, “Good character will not be acquired by doing a single tremendously good deed. Rather, it is acquired only through repeating good deeds very often. For example, it is better to give one dinar 1,000 times than to give one person 1,000 dinars, since you will not acquire the trait of generosity through a single magnificent deed.” (Mishna Commentary)
Here, tzedakah is about character building. It seems not to matter that one coin isn’t likely to help a poor person very much, whereas 1,000 coins might enable him to pay the rent. Maimonides’ advice about how to distribute one’s tzedakah is focused on helping the giver become a generous person. This seems to contradict Maimonides’ famous “ladder of tzedakah,” which champions helping the poor achieve self-sufficiency as the highest form of tzedakah. There, the needs of the recipient seem paramount. I wonder if Maimonides changed his mind about the goal of tzedakah or whether he is simply reminding us that Jewish law requires us to attend not only to tikkun ha-olam (improving the world), but also tikkun ha-middot (improving ourselves).
David Rosenn is Executive Director of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, a program combining front-line work on poverty issues with Jewish study and community building. Information at www.avodah.net
Tzedakah is not exclusively about the contributor or the recipient. Rather, giving is a vehicle that enables individuals to fulfill the obligation or mitzvah of tzedakah. Realizing this opportunity benefits both the donor and the beneficiary, but more important, contributes to the welfare of the community and the world as a whole. Tzedakah, like all mitzvoth, ensure a vibrant and robust community and helps make the world a better place.
As a fundraiser, I understand Maimonides’ teachings in yet another light. By being involved in the process of educating individuals about the needs of the community, I facilitate others’ ability to fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah. The rewards are multiple: I benefit by being a part of the process, the contributor benefits from fulfilling the obligation of tzedakah, and the recipient benefits from receiving the gift. From this perspective, it is not difficult to recognize tzedakah as an important step toward tikkun ha-olam. To strive for anything less would be to strive for less than our full potential.
Jason Soloway is a recent graduate of the Heller-Hornstein program at Brandeis University. He currently serves as Campaign Associate in the Commerce and Professions Division of the United Jewish Federation of MetroWest in New Jersey.
Rabbi Rosenn’s commentary raises questions for a philanthropist. What if a request seems of such magnitude that turning it down is out of the question? What if one knows that “shotguning around” is not the best way to influence change and “get the job done?” What if experience tells us that concentrating on one project is the best way to achieve a particular goal? What does one do when you perceive a particular area that cries out for attention and is not being addressed in any comprehensive manner? These are a few questions that have come to mind in the less than five minutes it has taken to write them down.
Where does Maimonides’ advice leave us with the concept in out tradition that to save one life is to save the world? If saving one life saves the world, could one cause save the universe, or a people? One philanthropist might have put his or her entire effort into saving every Jew who perished in the Holocaust. Would Maimonides change his mind once more? Give!
Bruce Whizin is a Vice Chair and member of the Executive Committee of the University of Judaism. He serves on the Board of Governors for the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Israel. He is President of The Whizin Foundation, and founded, with his wife Shelley, the Arthur Whizin Center at the University of Judaism.
Maimonides cares more about the quality of tzedakah than its quantity, more about the humanity of both donor and recipient than their respective pocketbooks. Sure, he values quantitative generosity, but only so far. He teaches that one who gives unpleasantly loses his merit even if the gift is very large. Someone who has no money with him still has the obligation to console the poor. Quality tzedakah is sharing pleasant words with the homeless as we drop coins in Styrofoam cups; it warms the hearts of the recipients and the souls of the givers. In the beautiful words of Kli Yakar, tzedakah requires that we open our hearts as well as our hands to the poor. How wonderful when a bat mitzvah or a bridegroom shares the feeling of simcha by giving tzedakah. How much more wonderful if less privileged guests are invited to join the celebration so they can share the warmth of community. What a propitious and rewarding way to enter adulthood to start new home.
Ira Kaminow is president of Tzedakah, Inc.
“NiSh’ma” is the Hebrew word for “let us hear.”