One of the great developers of character in our generation, Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, has frequently said that the first step to becoming a kind person is to be aware of the specific needs of each person you encounter. “What is this person missing?” is the question which must come to mind.
“It might sound easy,” he writes. “But as soon as you try to do this you will see how difficult it really is.”
-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #689″
Yahrtzeit of Nathan Straus (1848-1931), an American merchant and philanthropist. Straus was a co-owner of R.H. Macy & Co., yet he never amassed personal wealth because he was always using his money to help people. For example, in New York’s winter of 1893, he gave away more than two million five-cent tickets good for coal, food and lodging. His greatest devotion, however, was to Israel. He gave more than two-thirds of his fortune and devoted the last 15 years of his life to this cause. The Israeli city of Netanya is named for “Nathan” Straus.
Day in Jewish History, Tevet 23
Not long ago, I wrote a blog post centered around the question, why are we needed? I visit this topic periodically and I suppose today’s “meditation” is no different from many others I’ve written over the past several years. I suppose I could have written about something else today, but when I posted this link about Jewish tzedakah on Facebook, I got an unanticipated response.
This is interesting, but I have often found an interesting difference between Judaism and Christianity when it comes to charity. Judaism (at least from my experience) collects charity for their own. Meaning they are happy to help the poor as long as they are Jewish. This goes along in much the same way as understanding ‘Love thy neighbor’ to mean only your fellow Jew. Christians on the other hand when they do give charity tend to reach out with programs like soup kitchens, food pantries, etc…and do not as a rule only give to other Christians. I know that there are exceptions to each rule, however, this has just been an observation over the years in a general sense.
I had to pause in my response because the commenter is right. Does that mean that Judaism has “circled the wagons” so to speak, and as far as charity goes, serves only the Jewish people and Israel? The example of Nathan Straus seems to deny this, but Straus died over eighty years ago. What about now? Are Christians more expansive in our charity in the world than the Jews?
Israel has taken an active role in supporting the victims of Hurricane Katrina, a devastating hurricane which last week flooded and destroyed many cities and towns in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. On September 5, 2005, the Israel Foreign Ministry put out an urgent call for all businesses and organizations to donate essential goods to the hurricane victims. Some Israeli organizations, such as Magen David Adom, have set up special funds with the sole purpose of sending monetary contributions to the victims.
-from Jewish Virtual Library, Sept. 6, 2005
The first Israeli delegation landed in the capital of Port-Au-Prince on Friday evening (15 January) and established its operation center in a soccer field near the airport. On Tuesday night (Jan. 19), an additional team joined the IDF forces operating in Haiti since the earthquake, consisting of GOC of the Home Front Command, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, CEO of the Ministry of Health, Dr. Eitan Hai-Am, and the Chief Medical officer, Brig. Gen. Nahman Esh. After landing, the team arrived at the IDF field hospital and was updated on the current situation regarding the treatment of victims.
-from Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jan. 28, 2010
Israel Flying Aid, the Israeli global humanitarian organization which was first to land in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, has been distributing large supplies of gas to hospitals, food, batteries and generators to Hurricane Sandy victims.
-from Israel News Agency, Nov. 4, 2012
This is the first time that this border crossing is opened since the beginning of the military operation in Gaza.
It is expected that about 120 heavy-duty cars with medicines, household gas containers, food and other goods will be sent from Israel to Gaza through this border crossing.
Besides, 13 Palestinians who need medical help, with accompanying persons, have already been taken to Israel for medical treatment through the border crossing “Erez”.
Those are just some of the examples I found in a very quick Google search. I’m sure there are many more just like them. True, this is talking about aid sent by the nation of Israel and not American Jewish charitable agencies, but Israel is the Jewish nation and their values reflect Jewish charitable values.
However, I think the point Krista Dalton was trying to make on her blog post wasn’t whether or not Jews or Christians are better at “doing charity.”
As the waning sun signals the inauguration of Shabbat, many Jewish children approach the family pushke, or charity box, in order to drop in their metallic coins with a ritual “clink.” Images of these charity boxes vary: from a haphazardly constructed child’s project, to glistening wood and iron ornaments, or the now iconic blue sides of the Jewish National Fund, yet this practice of giving charity, called by the Hebrew word tzedakah, or righteous justice, is a unique part of the Jewish religious and cultural tradition. Jewish communities throughout the world incorporate individual as well as cooperative actions of charity into their daily practice, reflecting Jacob Neusner’s idealized vision: “Whatever else people do, if they do not do tzedakah, they are not a Jewish community” (Tzedakah, 31).
Here we see the very concept of giving charity is being instilled in the Jewish community starting with the smallest children. Further, charity and Shabbat become inexorably linked in the minds of many Jews from a very early age. It becomes “Jewish” to give as we see, not only at the personal level, but at the national, the cultural, and at the level of halachah. Charity becomes a lifestyle.
OK, I’m not saying all Jews everywhere are giving and that Christians don’t instill a sense of charity in the hearts of their children, but I don’t think it’s quite so institutionalized in the church as it is among observant Jews. In fact, returning to the nation of Israel which has a vast majority of Jews in its population who are not religious at all, charity, and to some degree even Torah, transcends religion entirely and becomes part of the national identity. You can’t say that about Christianity because, by definition, our corporate structure is entirely religious.
Krista also says:
To be honest, I am challenged as a Christian when I read Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ words. Do I view the poor in my own neighborhood as a part of my community? Do I consider myself to have an obligation to their needs?
The commenter on Facebook is right in that Jews tend to give to community, which in their case means Jewish community. But who do we as Christians consider community? Our church? The missionaries our particular church supports? What about the poor in the neighborhoods around our church, in our cities, in our counties? What about the poor we see on the street corners holding up cardboard signs as we drive to work, as we drive to church, as we drive to go out to dinner?
I’m not trying to compare or contrast Christian and Jewish charity. I’m just trying to get you (whoever happens to read this “meditation”) to think for a minute. Actually, I really want you to do more than think. I want you to do what God wants you (and me) to do. I want you to consider who needs you. It doesn’t matter who they are. Maybe they’re people you know. Maybe they’re your relatives. Maybe they’re people who live in a faraway place and you’ll never, ever see them. If you encounter someone and you perceive that they’re missing something you can provide, maybe you were made to fulfill their need at that place and at that time.
You don’t have to save the whole world all at once. That’s impossible. But you can choose to save one small piece of it every day. In that way, who knows? You might even be saving yourself.