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Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

Isaiah 51:12-52:12

A pig lamented to a cow and a chicken about his unpopularity:

"All you cows give is milk. Nevertheless, people always speak about your gentleness and kind eyes. A chicken only provides eggs, yet chicks are still thought of as cuddly and cute.

"I give far more: bacon, ham, bristles for brushes, leather, chitlins — and some people even pickle my feet. Why don't people love me as much as they love you two?"

The cow and the chicken replied, "It is because whatever we give, we give while we are alive. While you may give more, you give it only after you are dead!"

Thereupon all three were solicited for a contribution to a breakfast consisting of bacon, eggs and milk. The cow and the chicken endorsed the request wholeheartedly while the pig broke out in a sweat and refused to participate.

"You two only have to provide a contribution," the pig told the others. "But I have to make a total commitment."

Like the barnyard trio, most individuals give when it does not hurt too much and often only after death. The Israel Museum's Billy Rose Garden, one of the finest outdoor collections of sculpture ever assembled, is an exception to this observation. Rose gave this gift while he was alive because he wanted to see others enjoy the art as much as he did.

"It doesn't take much generosity to give things away when you are dead," he said. "I'd rather do it now than have some thin-lipped banker give them away later on."

Giving is a highlight of this week's Torah portion, Shoftim:

"You shall appoint magistrates and clerks for your tribes…to govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly, show partiality or take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive (Deuteronomy 16:18-20).

The Hebrew word for charity, tzedakah, evolved from the Hebrew word for justice, tzedek. Tzedakah means more than just giving; it means acting justly and correcting the wrongs of the world.

Tzedakah, an obligation for every Jew, no matter what his financial circumstances, means "righteous giving." Thus, accumulating wealth without helping the poor is considered a sin, as this story shows:

A man sold his possessions and bought a large piece of gold. He buried it in the earth. Daily he dug it up, examined it, admired it and reburied it. His routine was observed by a thief who dug up the treasure and stole it.

Discovering that the gold was gone, the man cried out in anguish. A neighbor came running and when he learned what had happened, he gave the distraught man some advice:

"Find a stone of equal size, paint it gold and put it back into the earth. Each day pretend your gold is still there. The stone will serve the same purpose, since you never meant to put the gold to any real use."

The Jewish tradition is clear about wealth amassed solely for the pleasure of ownership. The prophets railed against those who desecrated God's purpose by piously offering sacrifices and then accumulating wealth by cheating widows and orphans.

Thus the admonition of Parashat Shoftim, "Tzedek, tzedek tirdof" ("Justice, justice shall you pursue"), provides the benchmark for the distribution of wealth. By extension, our tradition further counsels: "Tzedakah tahtzeel me-mavet" ("Charity saves from death") (Proverbs. 10:2), teaching that the wise use of wealth to correct the wrongs of the world, even where there is little to give, saves lives.

Righteous giving implies the understanding that God needs our help both before and after our deaths, a concept reflected in Grace Noll Crowell's poem "The Stewardship of Giving":

"God loaned me a life and I must pay/Him back a portion of each day/In loving service; I must give/A part of every hour I live/In thoughtful, kindly deeds to others/Who are my sisters and my brothers.

"God loaned me coins I may not spend/For any wasteful selfish end./They are a trust that I must hold/As sacred. All the world's bright gold/Belongs to Him, and in my spending

"I must repay His gracious lending./God put His love within my heart./A love I ever must impart/To a world in desperate need of care./All things God gave me I must share./This is the stewardship of living; /A spontaneous and a joyous giving."