Tzedakah: Kindness by Choice

by Emily Goldberg

Life is unpredictable. Some days, we experience the blessings that life has to offer, varying from successes, new opportunities, and happiness. For most days, we can consider ourselves quite lucky when reflecting on the positive gifts that we receive, such as good health, fortune, shelter, and family. Despite the fluctuating economy, many of us are still able to return home each day with a guaranteed hot meal on the table and a stable roof over our heads. Dining at elegant restaurants is not a financial sacrifice for many, and being surrounded by family and friends is just another aspect of life. On those days, we can afford a perfect world.

Other days, however, are not as fantastic. Economic failures, destructive hurricanes, divorces, and illnesses can enter our lives unexpectedly. The misfortunes in life can easily override the blessings we often take for granted. Life’s unpredictability can disrupt stable relationships, families, and communities, and suddenly, that hot meal waiting on our table could be the most vital part of our day.

From previous experiences, however, it has been proven that there is hope. Whenever there is a life-threatening action brought forth in an entire community, there is a life-altering reaction from the world. For example, the destruction from Irene, the turbulent hurricane, gathered all of the suffering communities in the East Coast together. People immediately extended support and guidance to their neighbors whose homes were severely damaged by the storm. Only ten years ago, our national security was threatened after the horrifying 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City. Families of the victims in the World Trade Center united across the globe to share words of comfort, healing, and hope. Our nation was traumatized in unimaginable ways just ten years ago, but with the volunteerism and support from our fellow neighbors, our country was also strengthened.

It is the galvanizing events like these that unite our community and ignite immediate action from people. What we do not realize, however, is that people’s lives are threatened on a daily basis. The small blessings that we consider mundane are vital privileges for others. In our country, poverty and starvation is a constant fear for most, but a devastating reality for others that we do not see. Unfortunately, unless this problem affects communities at large, it will go unnoticed and unattended. Why is it that we can all gather and create a support system during these national, life-threatening events, but not for the daily struggles that exist right in front of us?

By taking action during times of need, we are actually fulfilling our Jewish obligation of Tzedakah or justice. Leaving an impact on someone in need of genuine comfort truly embodies the biblical saying of “tzedek, tzedek, tirdof,” or “justice, justice you shall pursue.” In order to sustain and reaffirm our faith, we are obligated to instill faith, or hope, in others. The pursuit of faith is not individualistic; people are meant to share faith together. It is not only an obligation, but also a revered value to uphold a support system for those in need. But there are people in need of hope each and every day. Even in our Jewish religion and heritage, we are not told to wait until a catastrophic event affects us before taking action.

Today, there are ways in which to pursue justice in less time consuming ways. Making a life-changing impact could ensue simply from initializing a conversation with someone. Holding the door for a person behind you, regardless of that person’s background, is an act of true righteousness. We are living in a new world where social philanthropy, or the love of mankind, takes precedence over tithes or financial donations. In fact, those who choose to love mankind will be the next Nobel Peace prize winners, presidents, and inspirational figures of our time. While tzedakah may be an affirmation of our obligations as Jews, it is the acts of righteousness performed by choice that set the standards for ideal Jewish living.

To live a life of faith requires taking obligations to a new level. To be an inspirational leader requires caring for others not only during global disasters, but also every other day. As Jews, we are commanded in our faith to give during the times of communal need. However, by choosing to improve the struggles that appear right in front of us, we will truly be able to be living examples of genuine faith. Tzedakah is not limited to any certain format or time; this obligation can be fulfilled by merely loving humanity and taking action by choice. While life may be unpredictable, it is the consistent support and awareness that can stabilize a threatened community. By choosing to live a life of giving whole heartedly, or tzedakah, we can overcome the daily struggles that engulf our Jewish community at large.

Emily Goldberg is a junior at the David Posnack Jewish Day School. She loves sharing her perspective on faith and religion, especially with her own Jewish community. In the future, she hopes to pursue interfaith studies, social action, Rabbinics, and writing. She hopes to lead a liberal and innovative Jewish community of her own someday, one where others can be inspired to pursue coexistence and positive change.

Reprinted with permission from the October 2011 issue of the journal Sh’ma, as part of a larger conversation about philanthropy and tzedakah.