And so, thanks to the vagaries of the calendar, of scheduling, and of the realities of putting out a newspaper, this will be the column that has to get you through Yom Hakippurim, then the days leading up to Sukkos, then Sukkos, then Hoshana Rabba, then Shemini Atzeres/Simchas Torah, and then Shabbos Parshas Bereishis.
What might be a common denominator, I ask myself. Is there one? What would be words of inspiration which would almost universally apply across such a gamut of days, events, emotions, and sentiments?
“U’teshuvah,u’tefilllah,u’tzedakah… annul the evil of a decree.” The haftara of Yom Kippur Shacharis states, “This is a fast day of which I approve. Divide your bread with the poor, bring the poor into your home…” Rambam (Hilchos Yom Tov, 6:18) writes that when one eats and makes merry on Yom Tov, one must make sure to include in that merrymaking the poor, the lonely, and the broken-hearted; he adds that neglecting this turns one’s Yom Tov enjoyment into selfish hedonism. And at the end of Parshas Bereishis, we are struck by the fact that despite all the sins of that generation, the final decree of the flood was based on gezel, the polar opposite of tzedakah vachessed.
Exactly why is tzedakah so powerful? Why does it permeate every fiber of a Jew’s being? Why does Hashem single out Avraham and his descendants as the Chosen Nation because of Avraham’s ability to transmit the values of justice and righteousness to his children (Bereishis 18:19)? Why does the Rambam say (Hilchos Matnos Aniyim 10:1), “A person is obligated to be very careful about the mitzvah of tzedakah, moreso than any other positive mitzvah? Because tzedakah is the essential nature of the Jewish People… And the permanent foundation of Klal Yisroel is established, and our true faith ensconced, only through tzedakah… And the ultimate geulah will only come about through acts of tzedakah…”
Pretty powerful words! Seems somewhat exaggerated, to tell the truth, no? More careful than any other mitzvah? Foundation of Klal Yisroel? Yet the Rambam brings pesukim to back up all that he says! Can this mitzvah really be that all-encompassing? Come to think of it, I can understand why teshuvah and tefillah annul the evil of a decree (although tefillah surely needs quite a bit of explanation itself) — but tzedakah? Don’t get me wrong, it is wonderful, and praiseworthy, and necessary. But of all the mitzvos, this one merits this unique position? (Teshuvah and tefilah are on that list not because of their quality as mitzvos, but because they are directly addressing the gezeirah, so to speak.) So why tzedakah? And why the long laundry list of what it brings in its wake? Why is that the essence of the fast day? Why is that the determinant of what your Yom Tov is really all about?
As an addendum to the Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvos, the Ramban enumerates a list of mitzvos which he diplomatically calls “mitzvos that the Rambam forgot to count.” (Of course, the Ramban also has an equivalent number of mitzvos on the Rambam’s list which he rejects, as everyone wants to reach the magic number of 613.) The last negative commandment on the Ramban’s list of such negative commandments, number seventeen, is “that we are commanded not to be upset when we give tzedakah to the poor, and that we are not to give tzedakah to them grudgingly, considering it a diminution of one’s own wealth. Rather, it is an expansion and increase of one’s wealth, for Hashem has promised to repay the giver and to add to the giver’s wealth.” LISTEN! The person is giving his money away! After all is said and done, he is doing this mitzvah. Yet according to the Ramban, if he feels a twinge, or if he just feels as if his bank account has decreased, he violates the lav! If he does not feel that he is making a sure-fire investment, a sure-fire monetary investment, he transgresses! Nothing short of amazing! There lies within this a major understanding of our whole standing vis-à-vis Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
In the halacha which we previously cited about doing acts of tzedakah, the Rambam mentions giving tzedakah. All the unbelievable descriptions were talking about the giving of tzedakah. It is not until the next halachah that the Rambam talks about having rachamanus on the poor and destitute.
Hashem clearly does not want us to give tzedakah out of a sense of pity. Were it to stem from pity or empathy, many of the halachos would not be applicable; a person’s obligation to give continues long after any natural feelings of pity have abated (see the halachos of tzedakah in Shulchan Aruch, or in numerous other halacha seforim). Rather, a person should be giving tzedakah because Hashem has so commanded, because of the mitzvah involved. And this mitzvah engenders a person’s capacity for kindness, benevolence, gentleness. The idea of providing others with what they lack is the ultimate in mitzvah-doing. We are emulating Hashem, for whom the entire briah is an exercise in giving. Hashem does not give out of pity, nor out of love, nor due to any rationale at all. He is a giver, and He has told us to give if we have what others do not. If we feel “chasser”(missing something) when we give, we are not truly givers. We give as emissaries of Hashem, fulfilling His will, and the ultimate manifestation of that is bonding with Him by being like Him, and the highest expression of that is to be a giver and not feel chasser.
This is why tzedakah is the mitzvah we must be most careful to fulfill. This permeates the Yomim Noraim and has the power to annul the evil of a decree. And no Yom Tov, no celebration of our status of Yidden, can be considered proper unless we make giving part of our celebration, while the polar opposite of giving can cause the destruction of the whole human enterprise.
I take this opportunity to recommend Kupah Shel Tzedakah of RBS-A, which I am personally familiar with, as meeting the needs of aniyim in our neighborhood.
And I wish you all, dear readers, a gmar chasimah tovah, and the entire title listing