R’ Jonathan Sacks wrote an excellent essay with regard to the mitzvah of “tzedaka”(1), mentioned in this week’s parasha. The quote is “If anyone is poor among you, in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted towards them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. …. Give generously to them, and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this, the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor in your land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”
R’ Sacks described this as a unique and remarkable program for the elimination of poverty. Rashi commented that the intention was to eliminate poverty and yet Moshe also said that there would always be poor in the land. He explained that the persistence of poverty would occur if the nation did not keep the Torah.
R’ Eli Munk quoted the Talmud which emphasises that the financial help to the poor must be accompanied by emotional support. Whoever gives even the smallest coin to the poor is blessed with six blessings but whoever comforts them with kind words, receives eleven blessings (Bava Batra 9b).
R’ Sacks outlined the characteristics of tzedaka, referring to the Rambam’s laws of gifts to the poor. “Someone who does not wish to give tzedaka or who gives less than is appropriate, may be compelled by Jewish court of law to give the correct amount.” Charity is always voluntary, but tzedaka is compulsory. Therefore tzedaka does not mean charity. R’ Sacks wrote that the nearest equivalent is “social justice”.
Jewish law focuses on the manner in which tzedaka is given, and Rambam stated that if a poor person does not wish to accept tzedaka, it should be given under the guise of a loan.
In addition, Rambam stated that “even a poor person who is dependent on tzedaka is obliged to give tzedaka”. R’ Sacks explained that this only makes sense if you accept that giving is essential to human dignity, and tzedaka is the obligation to ensure that everyone has that dignity.
Rambam also stated that “highest degree of charity is to put a person in a situation in which he can dispense with other people’s aid, such as by helping him find employment, or by accepting him into a business partnership”. This further serves to show that tzedaka does not mean charity, but rather giving people the means to achieve a dignified life.