Rabbi Benjamin Zober
Delivered for ACTIONN 10/18/18
Jewish tradition tells a story about the beginning of time, when God started to create the world. God, being the ultimate Being, left no room for heaven and earth. God’s Divine Light was put into vessels to make room for Creation, but no vessel could contain God’s light forever. After Creation was completed, the vessels shattered, and the divine light scattered throughout the universe. My tradition says that it is our job to gather these sparks and return them to their source, engaging in tikkun olam, the literal repairing of the world.
How do we repair the world? How do we, individuals, even people in our small communities, even imagine such a task? We can write a check, we can spend a morning volunteering, write a letter or make a phone call: all noble and essential activities, but a task as monumental as the repair of the world requires something more. It requires tzedakah.
Tzedakah is drawn from the root tzedek – righteousness or justice. It is not charity, but this idea to which we are obligated. Our earliest texts tell us: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – justice, justice shall you pursue. The Hebrew Bible, always sparing in its words, repeats the first word: tzedek. When we see one word repeated, the sages tell us it is either to get our attention: “Abraham, Abraham!” or to underscore how thoroughly and wholeheartedly we are to undertake whatever its command. Here, it is justice that commands our attention and our action. And the third word is tirdof – to pursue or chase – we are not merely told to honor justice or to respect it but to take it up active pursuit, to engage with it in our lives.
Tzedakah is not charity. Charity is good, but insufficient. Charity calls on us to give out of love and compassion. Tzedakah instead acknowledges that there is more to meeting someone’s needs than giving. If it were only money that could pull someone from poverty, cutting a check would suffice. If people in need only faced their immediate problems – if society did not hold them back, if racial and socioeconomic conditions did not create disparities and disadvantages, charity would suffice. Tzedakah reminds us that If we are to preside over real, lasting, and meaningful change, we need more than charity. We need a commitment – to address the needs of our communities, to root out the systemic issues that keep the poor poor and the widow powerless and the orphan abandoned.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs reminds us, “Tzedakah…aims to transform the system into one that is more equitable for the most vulnerable members of society.”
How do we help create this transformation? It is easy for us to remind people to give. Congregants are used to our prodding, urging, and our nudging. And the funds we secure through those efforts do a lot of good. But moving from charity to tzedakah, from donations to acts of justice, that requires more. Maimonides, the great Jewish 12th Century scholar, described 8 levels of giving, from the simplest acts of charity to true exercises of tzedakah. That reluctant, begrudging gift we guilt out of our congregants? Maimonides places that at the lowest level. He outlines 6 more levels, from the willing but small gift, up to a gift where neither donor nor recipient know the other’s identity.
And the highest level of tzedakah, says Maimonides, is one where a person helps another to become self-supporting by a gift or a loan or by finding employment for the recipient. This is the most challenging, but most effective means of giving. It is truly creating justice because its action corrects inequalities, fights prejudices, and opposes bigotry and intolerance.
Now these things are not always popular. People complain that they do not come to church or to synagogue to be lectured to. They come to pray. They do not want our politics interfering with their religion. We as faith leaders should not let politics dominate our services, nor exceed the boundaries of our knowledge and expertise. Yes, our people come to pray. And while we must remain in the world of prayer we can still speak to our values and morals in action in the world and our community. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who escaped the horrors of Nazi-controlled Germany to come to the United States, offered an assessment of this issue.
He said, “Religion as an establishment must remain separated from the government. Yet prayer as a voice of mercy, as a cry for justice, as a plea for gentleness, must not be kept apart. Let the spirit of prayer dominate the world. Let the spirit of prayer interfere in the affairs of man. Prayer is private, a service of the heart; but let concern and compassion, born out of prayer, dominate public life.”
We need tzedakah to dominate our lives and the lives of our congregants. We need justice and righteousness. That we act out of love for our brothers and our sisters, this is what takes our actions from lofty religious ideals, from the floating rhetoric of our sermons and teachings, and brings it into the streets, into people’s homes and lives.
This is the work we must do. Tzedakah requires action, purpose, pursuit, and sometimes, an opinion or two. But if we are to make it our life’s work to “send help to the falling and healing to the sick; bring freedom to the captive and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust” we must bring everything we have in our power, in our minds, and in our hearts to bear.
And together we say: Amen.