La La How The Life Goes On

Tzedakah?! I Hardly Know Her!

Posted on: November 30, 2011

Today I was shopping at the Savers thrift store. Yes. I was buying my 3 year old clothes AGAIN because she grows every two weeks, and I’m just not paying 36 bucks for a velour skirt when I can get it in primo condition for $6.99…all the while supporting Big Brothers/Sisters. It’s a straight-up no-brainer.

Now, we routinely drop kid clothing and toy stuff off at the Savers if we don’t have a neighbor or friend who can use it. I don’t necessarily consider it charity because they are actually doing me a favor by taking it off my hands. Today, however, I was behind a woman in line who apparently feels that “the amount of really quality designer stuff I drop off here” entitles her to treat the Savers staff like second-hand losers. You’ll love the irony that she was loudly berating a staff member for “overcharging” her a dollar on her…wait for it…light-up Christmas church figurine. Yes, she believed the price to be $5.99, not $6.99, and she would not be paying “premium” because “this isn’t goddamn Bloomingdales!”

All of which got me thinking that we need to add a new level to what we Juifs (well, really just me) call The Rambam Rorschach Tzedakah Test. Tzedakah is the Hebrew word for both justice and charity. It is a commandment that all Jews must perform Tzedakah. There are certain kinds of tzedakah that are considered better than others. The levels of charity, from the least meritorious to the most meritorious, as compiled by The Rambam (google him) are:

Giving begrudgingly.
Giving less that you should, but giving it cheerfully.
Giving after being asked.
Giving before being asked.
Giving when you do not know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient knows your identity.
Giving when you know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient doesn’t know your identity.
Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity.
Giving in a manner that enables the recipient to become self-reliant.

Truth be told, even though I was laughing to myself about adding a “Giving so you can treat the recipient like shit” level, I really did think hard about what we do as a family for others. Do we give because we want recognition–or because it’s the right thing to do? Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That, of course, since what is important is the giving. But if I’m really trying to teach my girls to love others as we love ourselves, why would it be okay to give less than we should? Or to want the recipient to be grateful? It says nowhere in Judaism that we should give Tzedakah only to the worthy, the pleasant or the grateful. “Tzedakah, Tzedakah shall you pursue.” End of command. And as inconvenient as that now makes my life, it is what it is. You give because you should. And, hopefully, you give not so the recipient will be nice or grateful or beholden to you, but so that the person will no longer require charity.

These are the reasons we donate our third night of Chanukah gifts (what we would have spent) to Heifer International. By helping a family across the world or right here in the US to acquire an animal (cow, sheep, goats, chicks, honeybees), you give them food AND a trade or a product to sell to others. You create commerce, and you help a family, a village, a community to become self-sustaining.

Or there is another family favorite, The Smile Train. For a ludicrously low cost they can perform cleft lip and palate surgery on one child, thereby changing that child’s life forever. In many nations cleft issues are a death sentence, so the effect of that (in the West) simple surgery truly is not only life, but a life of self-sustenance.

I’d love to hear from you all about your favorite causes, from anywhere on the Rambam Scale. Put them in the comments and hopefully we can spread the word to others:

If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another. –The Dalai Lama

“They give food, out of love for Him (Allah), to the poor, the orphan, and the slave, saying: We feed you only for Allah’s pleasure – we desire from you neither reward nor thanks.” –Quran,76:8,9

If you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one. –Mother Teresa

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4 Responses to "Tzedakah?! I Hardly Know Her!"

Although it is lame to comment on your own post, I want to list http://www.dccentralkitchen.org/ as a truly worthy recipient of your generosity. Not only feeding the hungry, but training them for jobs in the hospitality industry too. #winning

Nothing But Nets provides anti-malaria bed nets to protect children in Africa from malaria-carrying mosquitos. Rick Reilly, a sportswriter (basketball, hence the nets double entendre), started this a few years ago with the United Nations Foundation and reported that nearly 3,000 children die from malaria each day in Africa. Just a $10 contribution provides an insecticide-coated net to save a child’s life. Today there’s a crisis in the Horn of Africa, where more than a million people have been forced to flee their homes because of drought, famine, and conflict. Malaria spreads quickly in refugee camps. Is there a better use of 10 bucks than saving a kid’s life? http://www.nothingbutnets.net.

We do Half The Sky.

I love your comments about Tzedekah and, as always, you make some excellent points. I hope you won’t mind my pointing out one small error, though. The actual phrase from the Torah is

tzedek, tzedek, tirdof
justice, justice,
shall you pursue
– deut. 16:20

Nothing wrong with pursuing both charity and justice, though!

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