Let me read to you a phrase that was written almost 830 years ago:
מעולם לא ראינו ולא שמענו בקהל מישראל שאין להן קופה של צדקה — Never, ever, have we seen or heard about a Jewish community that does not have a charity fund. — Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 9:3
Maimonides never heard or seen such a thing. Every community in his time, apparently, had a charity fund. I am wondering how true this holds today… And I am also wondering what exactly means a charity fund?
Normally, we thing about charity funds in terms of money. Whether in a bank account (for the fancy shuls) or maybe just a pushke (for the little schtiebels) – charity is set aside, given by members and distributed to those in need. The richer the community, the bigger the charity fund. The more poor people – the faster the money are spent.
But from all this, we are missing one thing that, I am sure, Rambam didn’t miss: the Hebrew the word tzedakah doesn’t really mean charity. If you look in a dictionary, “charity” means giving to the poor or to those in need. Yet, in Hebrew, tzedakah comes from the word “tzedek” which means justice. Tzedakah is an act of performing justice. The world is not ours, but God’s, and thus what we do when we give tzedakah is redistributing the goods in an equitable manner, thus bringing justice into the world.
So could we say that kupah shel tzedakah which the Rambam notices in every shul really means a “Justice Fund”? Do all shuls have a justice fund nowadays? Do all shuls perform justice? How about all shul members?
Before we try to answer these questions, let’s take a quick look at our Parsha and the interesting progression it offers when it comes to tzedakah. In Devarim 15, just a few verses apart, the Torah talks about poor people and about the act of giving:
“Efes ki lo ihie becha evion” (“There shall be no destitute person among you.”) – we are told in verse 4.
“Ki ihie becha evion meachad achicha” (“If there shall be a destitute person among you, of one of your brothers in any of your cities, in your land that Hashem, your God, gives you, you shall not harden your heart nor shall you close your hand against your destitute brother”) – we are told in verse 7.
And just four verses later, in verse 11, the Torah says: “Ki lo iechdal evion mikerev ha’aretz” (“For destitute people will not cease to exist within the land. Because of this I command you, saying: ‘Patoach tiftach – Surely you shall open your hand to your brother, to your poor one, to your destitute in your land.’”)
Many commentators are puzzled by the progression: “there will be no evionim”, in verse 4. “If there will be an evion”, in verse 7. And “there will always be evionim” in verse 11. Which one is it? It’s like saying that “none” equals “some” equals “all”.
Some commentators, like Rashi for example, explain that it is all based on whether we obey God’s commandments or not. For him, things are apparently very simple: if we’re good, we don’t have evionim around. If we stray from the path, trouble starts and we’ll have to spend money, our money, to make it right. And since we are always prone to stray, we need to make sure money are available, and we establish charity funds…
But if we only keep money in our charity funds (like we normally do), I am afraid that we will not be able to make everything right. Let me try to explain what I mean…
The same way the Hebrew word tzedakah has the root tzedek which conotes justice, the Hebrew word evion that the Torah uses in our Parsha comes from the root taav, to desire, to long for. Again Rashi, in his commentary to Exodus 23:6 where the Torah also uses the word, says the following: “evion – shehu meduldal ve’taav le’chol tovah”.
Evion, Rashi explains, actually talks about “a person who is destitute and longs for anything good”. It’s true, the money in our charity funds can buy us or the poor people many good things. But – and here is my question – how much spirituality, friendship, love, Jewish identity or the feeling of belonging, all “good things”, can our money buy? How much of that is about money, and how much is about the way we behave, the way we connect, and the way we are?
Hmm, you might say, interesting… So we should have charity funds of love and friendship now, right? Forget paying the shul dues, forget the Yizkor pledge, the Purim Tzedakah Poker Tournament and all the appeals. Marc Spear will understand, won’t he? The rabbis and office staff will work as volunteers, won’t they?
Obviously, that’s not what I’m trying to say here.
What I am really trying to say is that giving money is not everything. My father-in-law (z”l) used to say that if you have to give something, the easiest thing to give is money. It’s much harder to give your time or your love, it’s much harder to give tzedakah, to do justice in the world, than to give charity.
The Torah talks in this week’s Parsha about the evionim and tells us that we will not have any. Then, it tells us what are our duties if we do find them amonst ourselves. And lastly, it teaches that there is no escaping from these duties, because the evionim are everywhere.
I think this is really the progression that we encounter every day of our lives. We look around and think everything is perfect: no evionim, the world (or at least my back yard) is great! I just gave a check to the shul, it was 20% of my income, so I’m fine: mitzvah of tzedakah fulfilled, right? I just got out of Rosh Hashana-Yom Kippur with my sins cleared, I’m an angel, right? I davened and I learned my Daf Yomi today, so I’m fine, right?
But what if after all that, on the best day of my life, when I need a smart phone or a laptop to keep track of all my good deeds, what if there is another oportunity for tzedakah? What if I come across a different kind of evion, who wants a few minutes of my time, or a good advice, or a shoulder to cry on? What if my spouse or my kid needs me, me and not my money? Should I say: “I did my part today”, let others give tzedakah now? Should I think: “I was great today, so there should be no evionim. If I find any, then really God made a mistake, so let Him fix it”?
We can always have dreams of a world in which there are no problems, a perfect world… “Ki lo iechdal evion mikerev ha’aretz”, the Torah tells us when we slip on that path. “The destitute people will not cease to exist”…
In Rambam’s time, all the Jewish communities had a tzedakah fund. Today, so much in the world defies tzedakah, defies justice. So much is about money, and the way so many people usually understand tzedakah to mean giving money.
But I believe God talks to humans in this Parsha in a very different way: there is always something to do, the world, even in the richest of communities, always needs fixing. And so, my message today for everyone is simple: “Let’s put the love and friendship and inclusivity and openness on our pledges, too!”. Along with our money, that we give (and I know you all do that in a wonderful way), let’s open our hearts and our hands, like the Torah prompts us, to all the evionim amongst us.
My wife and I were here at the HIR for three years. I have to tell you honestly, much of what I just said we saw accomplished here at The Bayit. We were shown love and friendship that we have never truly expected in a foreign country, in a foreign community. We were given a feeling of belonging that is so hard to achieve these days. We learned and experienced a world we only dreamt about for many years.
And now we return to Romania, to try and recreate this world there. We go back to friends and family we left behind in an attempt to give further what was given to us.
In a way, when we came, we thought we will be the evionim here: no family, no friends, foreign country, foreign language, foreign culture. You can really feel very destitute… But what we got instead was our Parsha come true. We got open souls and welcoming arms – what strangers usually don’t even dare to hope for…
And we just wanted to thank you for this, to thank you for opening your kupah shel tzedakah, your “charity/justice fund” to us, for opening your hands and hearts, and for making us feel so rich… We want to leave you with the thought that you should be so proud of who you are, as people and as a community, and we want to thank you for being The Bayit, the home for everyone, in Riverdale.
— Drașa oferită în ultimul Șabat petrecut în anul 2007 la sinagoga Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR / The Bayit) din Riverdale, New York
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