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The Ethics of Tzedakah Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

February 13, 2016

Ellie, I really enjoyed the development of your D’var Torah and your thinking through some of the issues concerning the different ways that a community might  gather the funds needed for worthy community purposes. You identified the strengths and weaknesses of depending on voluntary donations along with the benefits and pitfalls of making all such contributions mandatory.

These questions, about how to divide the financial burden of community needs, have been asked repeatedly in Jewish law and continue to bedevil American democracy. What should the community provide to every person? Should that include food, shelter, education, health care? And how should this be paid for?

For much of Jewish history, even though we did not have a separate country of our own, Jews lived in separate communities, and so these were issues for the Jewish community to handle.

There are some cases in which Jewish law insists that the burden be proportional to the benefit. So that if you benefit more from a community project, say the construction of a wall, you should be asked to contribute more to fund it.

In other cases, the contributions requested were in some ways proportional to the means of the individual- this was true in particular during periods when the gap between poor and rich was quite extreme.

There were things for which everyone should contribute, and that included not only items needed for the regular service of the ancient Temple, but also the fund for the poor, to which even the almost destitute were expected to make some donation. Judaism also saw education as a responsibility of the community, not solely the parent’s problem, and as early as Roman times, the Jewish community had established a system of free public education, at least for boys.

These questions about who should contribute, how much, and whether they should be obligated to do so, are not the only questions to be asked about Tzedakah.

Jewish law also developed guidelines for ethics in the collection of Tzedakah and its administration. The funds were always to be under the supervision of two people, so that there would be no temptation for theft or other malfeasance. Just as Moses reported to the Israelites on the use of each of the items donated for the building of the tabernacle so it became Jewish law that community funds were to be accounted for publically. The new film about the Madoff scandal, reminds us that these issues of  honesty in handling tzedakah are not just for the past. Recent scandals in several Jewish organizations, particularly those caring for the poor in New York City, remind us of how relevant they are today.

Finally  there is the question of apportioning the funds. Build a school or a bathhouse, feed a family or redeem someone who has been taken captive? The Talmud creates a hierarchy based both on the immediacy of the need, that is food over clothing, clothing over housing, and the degree of danger, redeem captive women first as they are in greater danger.  They allow the sale of a Torah scroll to provide for a school, and in other ways attempt to give guidance to competing needs.

For many of us today the question in apportioning our tzedakah money is to “cure” or to “care”. Is it more important to fund organizations that feed people who are currently hungry, or to provide the means to develop ways of avoiding famine in the future?  Do we fund research into finding a cure for cancer, or provide for the House which helps families when their child is being treated at a hospital far from home? Our mandate is pikuach nefesh, the saving of a life, overrides other mitzvoth, so for small donations the immediate need for food to live another day, overrides other concerns. However, when thinking of the larger investments of the community, a more long term view is taken.

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Moses gathers from the Israelites who are wandering in the desert, the items needed to build the tabernacle, the mishkan. The rabbis wondered about where certain of the items mentioned came from. Where did the Israelites, for example, get dolphin skins? Well, many children have heard the story of how the dolphins played an important role in shepherding the people through the walls of water when the sea split, keeping the fish in their side of the water and the children on theirs. Some of the dolphins lost their lives in this service when the waters came rushing in. The Midrash tells us that their skins were collected by the Israelites and honored in their use in the tabernacle.

Another items that seems hard to find in the desert is acacia wood. Yet we are told that the Israelites donated acacia wood for the poles with which they carried the tabernacle.  Here too the midrash offers an explanation. They suggest  that through the ruach hakadosh, the holy spirit, Jacob had a vision of this future need for acacia wood. In fact the Torah describes God speaking to Jacob as he is about to leave Canaan and head to Egypt, assuring him that someday the people would leave Egypt and return to the promised land.  So we are told, when Jacob was travelling through the wilderness of Sinai on the way to see his son Joseph, second in command in Egypt, he stopped in various spots and planted acacia trees. Now so many hundreds of years later, these trees are ready for the Israelites to harvest.

That is the other guideline for our tzedakah- act so that hundreds of years in the future, people will appreciate how you have thought of the future in providing for their needs. Shabbat Shalom.


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