Torah | Tzedakah is more than charity its a giving of oneself

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Genesis 18:1-22:24

II Kings 4:1-37

A number of weeks ago, I was asked to lead a study session on the theme of tzedakah at an Oakland Hebrew Day School board meeting. I am on the board and two of our children are happy students there.

OHDS takes special pride in the school’s middot (character development) curriculum, which strives to educate the whole child, and inculcate such attributes as gratitude, curiosity and resilience. In the spirit of the school’s approach to middot, I sought to explore tzedakah not solely as an action, but also as a disposition or even a character trait.

In preparing for the session, I immediately turned to a powerful verse contained in this week’s Torah portion. In it, the Torah explains God’s need (as it were) to reveal to Abraham God’s plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah: “The Lord said, ‘Shall I conceal from Abraham what I am doing? […] For I have known him because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the Lord to perform righteousness [la’asot tzedakah] and justice.’” (Genesis 18:17, 19)

Though the Torah never explicitly explains God’s choice of Abraham as the founder of our people, this verse offers some insight.

It is important to note that Abraham is not simply described as a person who gives tzedakah, as the word in Hebrew would have been notein (giver) otherwise, but rather as a doer of tzedakah (oseh). Put differently, Abraham is not only described as a person who gives charity, but rather as a charitable person; one who leads a life of giving.

In the book, “Creating Congregations of Generous People,” Michael Durall asks: “Should generosity be one of the core values of religious people? Phrased less delicately, is it possible to lead miserly lives (or conversely, lives of great indulgence) while giving little to the [community] or to any other charitable organization — yet attending worship services and considering oneself to be a person of faith?”

Durall then draws a direct connection between people’s capacity to give (at a level that suits every person’s means) and their ability to grow morally and spiritually: “Unfortunately, the small-gift mentality that exists in many congregations diminishes people’s capacity to grow spiritually in personal faith and to grow in character as human beings,” he writes.

Durall’s poignant observation is subtly expressed in Orchot Tzaddikim, one of our tradition’s most important books of Mussar (ethical and spiritual instruction pertaining to one’s character development), which focuses on many different traits, such as pride, mercy, joy and anger.

In the Orchot Tzaddikim chapter on generosity, the virtues associated with this trait, as well as the many different ways in which one might exercise charitable giving, are meticulously explained.

Toward the end of the chapter, the concept of generosity is expanded beyond specific concrete acts of charity: “A person should be generous with his energy, going out of his way for people, bearing their yoke and their burden, feeling pain at  their anguish, praying for their sake, rejoicing in their joy, visiting the sick and doing kindness to the dead. A person should especially be generous with his knowledge of the Torah, teaching every person knowledge and drawing their hearts towards Heaven.” (from “Orchot Tzaddikim: The Ways of The Righteous,” edited and translated by Seymour J. Cohen)

According to this teaching, God’s description in our Torah portion of Abraham as oseh tzedakah (a doer of tzedakah) may contain within it the secret of Abraham’s spiritual personality and the reason for his success as a religious leader.

Indeed, we might argue that generosity as defined and expanded by Orchot Tzaddikim is the very character trait and personal disposition that allowed Abraham to emerge and succeed as the founder of many nations and religions.

Through his capacity to give not only of his means but also of himself, not only of his time and energy but also of his heart and ears, Abraham was able to transform the lives of many, ultimately inspiring them to continue walking in his path of tzedakah.

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. He can be reached at [email protected].

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. He can be reached at [email protected].