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Parshat Behar: Are the Poor and Needy Among You? - Tzedakah, Not Charity!

by: Cheryl Pedersen

Every city has them, the poor, the homeless, and the disenfranchised. They stand at the end of the off ramp and rush out to wash your windshield in hopes of a handout. They congregate on the corners of busy intersections with signs that say “Will Work for Food” or “Homeless Vet Needs Help.” In some places they are brazen enough to walk up to people on the street and ask for money. In other places, they huddle in their tents, too often in drug-induced fog, not knowing what’s going on around them or even if they will see tomorrow.

Our answer in many cities is to say, they need housing. Shelters take them in on a first-come-first-serve basis, but that doesn’t resolve the issue. Oftentimes the rules at the shelter get them kicked back to the streets. Some cities build dwellings for them sans rules and, while expensive, it does nothing to alleviate the problem. As we see millions of more refugees from South and Central America flood across our borders, practically unimpeded, we have to wonder where they will go, how they will be supported, and if they will join those living on the streets. Many of our homeless need much more than a roof over their heads. They need help with addictions or mental illness. They need a hand up far more than a hand out.

In this week’s parashah there is an interesting passage that says:

“If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side: do not exact from him advance or accrued interest, but fear your God. Let him live by your side as your kinsman. Do not lend him your money at advance interest, or give him your food at accrued interest. I the LORD am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God. Leviticus 25:35-38

What this is basically saying is that if there is someone who has fallen on difficult times, you are obliged to help him. The opening phrase “If your kinsman, being in straits” translates literally to “if your kinsman stumbles.” What the Sages say is that it’s easier to help someone who has first begun to stumble than to pick them up after they have fallen. It’s easier to prevent poverty than to cure it.

The verse goes on to talk about interest-free loans. “Sign me up!” you might say. However, the verse is not just talking about “free money” for the poor. It exacts a responsibility from the one who is helping. It’s pretty easy these days to say we believe in helping the poor when it’s the government providing the support while we live comfortably. We are good with checks to others and charity for all as we sit in our comfortable homes. And taxes to cover it? Well, it will have to come from the richest people. They need to share more of what they have. I’m tapped out.

This verse is not talking about government programs and centralized methods of supporting the poor. The verse is pretty clear. If you know someone in dire financial straits, don’t personally charge them interest, in fact, take them in to live by your side. Feed them. Care for them. The kicker at the end provides the reason: “I the LORD am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God.” This reference reminds us who we owe for our very existence. It certainly implies that if He has lifted you out of slavery (and debt is definitely a form of slavery), then you are to practice a higher moral standard than what is practiced by others.

What we’re talking about is charity or, more precisely, tzedakah which is actually different from charity. Charity is commonly understood to be a spontaneous act of generous goodwill. Tzedakah is a moral obligation, an act of righteousness which comes from the root word “tzedak.”

Maimonides suggested there are eight levels of tzedakah. The eighth and lowest level is to give unwillingly. Could you find a better definition of taxation? How many of us look at a paycheck and say, “Praise God, the government got their portion!”? Or how many of you write that check in April or see the levy on your home go up and smile happily because you’re giving a more for some unknown bureaucrat to allocate elsewhere?

The next level up is someone who gives inadequately—that is, less than they could and less than is needed—but gives with a smile.

The sixth level is when one gives to the poor because he’s asked. We roll down our window at the corner and hand a $5 to the guy whose sign says, “Need Money.”

The fifth level is when you give directly to the poor before being asked. This is you with a backseat full of baggies containing socks and toiletries, driving around to the usual places and handing them out. It’s the kid who made the news because his folks helped him make up sack lunches to hand out to the homeless folks on the corner. Appreciated, yes. Still only level five.

On the fourth level is when you give not knowing who will receive it, but the recipient knows who it’s from. This is the person who donates a sizable sum to the local homeless shelter or food pantry and makes sure there’s a story on it in the news. “Look what I did!” it screams.

Third level is when you give to a specific organization or person you know is in need, but they don’t know who gave to them. The sages compare this to the one who goes about in the night placing sacks of coins on the doorsteps of the poorest people and stealing away before they can be identified.

At the second level is the one who gives not knowing who will receive it and those receiving don’t know who gave it. Anonymity all around that there be no shaming of those who receive the donation and no ego-boosting publicity for the donor.

What’s interesting is the highest level of tzedakah as identified by Maimonides is totally different from the previous seven. He said that this is when you make it possible for the poor to support themselves. You lend or endow money to form a partnership in business or set them up with a job to take care of themselves. You do what’s right so they will no longer need to accept tzedakah from anyone, but eventually become donors themselves.

It’s easy to pay our taxes and say we’ve done our part. We may not like the tax rate, but it keeps us away from the fray and, in the end, isn’t that what we hope government social programs will do? They will allow us to massage a guilt muscle over the very real problem of poverty without getting our hands dirty. That’s not what scripture demands of us. That’s not what this passage in particular is saying. Perhaps we would do well to take Maimonides levels of tzedakah to heart. Just maybe we need to stop thinking of it as a generous, charitable act and more of a moral obligation to lift people out of their situation rather than provide handouts that keep them enslaved. Remember, it was God who lifted us up out of our personal Egypt. Who will we lift up in the same way?

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