Charity or merit

This week’s Torah reading always feels like a warm reunion. After a certain awkwardness in the two previous weeks, reading about those ambiguous characters, Adam and Noach, we feel back at home with Avraham Avinu. All of humankind is impressed with Avraham because he’s a remarkable human being, but for us he’s also our Alter Zeidie. Now we get to relive his journey from Ur, his sojourn in Egypt, his trials with Lot, and his victorious resolution to a world war. But this year I’d like to discuss his difficult, perhaps uncomfortable conversation with God, which opens chapter 15. 

The scene opens with God talking to Avraham after his remarkable military success. God informs our hero, ‘Fear not, Abram; I am your Shield; your reward (merit?) is exceedingly great (Breishit 15:1).’ This statement is already momentous and gives us the concept of MAGEN AVRAHAM, God shields our Patriarch and us, but it also raises the question, what is Avraham afraid of? The war has ended. Rashi suggests that Avraham was concerned that he had used up all of his credit with God to attain the great military victory. However, the most concerning issue is Avraham’s response. 

 Avraham says, ‘O Lord God, what will You give me, since I am going childless, and the steward of my household is Eliezer of Damascus (verse 2)?’ It almost sounds as if he’s ungrateful for all the Divine help. But Avraham is focused on his mission, and is really concerned about an heir. Who will continue this spiritual revolution? 

God responds, ‘This one will not inherit you, but the one who will spring from your loins, he will inherit you (verse 4).’ Then God shows Avraham the evening sky and informs him that his progeny will be as numerous as those stars above. 

Now we encounter the verse I shall endeavor to analyze: And he believed in the Lord, and He (or ‘he’) accounted it to him as righteousness (TZADAKA, verse 6).’ 

There is an embedded ambiguity. Who thought that the other was behaving righteously? Well, that’s an argument. One team, captained by Rashi, believes God credited Avraham with righteous behavior for his faith in the promise, in spite of his advanced age. The other team led by the Ramban maintains that Avraham considered God’s promise of a miracle child to be an act of TZADAKA.  

Both positions have merit, and I believe that we’re supposed to consider that both opinions have validity. Biblical ambiguity is also a teaching device. Personally, I incline towards the Ramban, because God is offering the first obvious, open miracle in our story, while Avraham is displaying a continued faith-based behavior. Avraham had more to comment on. 

But what is TZADAKA? If I asked that question in any other context, everyone would respond ‘charity’. Here most translate the term ‘righteousness’. Alter and JPS suggest ‘merit’. The HaK’TAV V’HaKABALA (Ya’akov Zvi Mecklenberg, 1785-1865) offers an analysis of the term. He explains that TZEDEK means adhering to the letter of the law, following the exact demand of the situation, as in ‘TZEDEK, TZEDEK TIRDOF (Devarim 16:20)’. On the hand, adding the letter HEY intensifies the term to now mean ‘going beyond the letter of the law’. Perhaps, we should translate it: an act of supreme virtue or rectitude. 

   What are we doing when we give TZADAKA? We’re doing a profoundly significant spiritual deed. We use the term charity, which comes from the Latin word ‘carus’ which gives us the word ‘caring’, and is about affection and compassion. This is a wonderful emotion and should be encouraged, but it’s not TZADAKA. 

TZADAKA is not about emotion; it’s a cognitive act. It’s about doing what is right. In this context, giving to the less fortunate is less about the needs of the other, and more about my need to do the right thing. 

In my previous community, I was inspired by a successful businessman who felt an obligation to share his wealth, and never wanted any credit. I remember being with a community leader who was begging this person to publicly reveal the largesse, because it would encourage others to give and, thereby, help in the fund-raising endeavor. Only then did this ZADIK agree to an announcement. 

Avraham was, I believe, galvanized by this and other experiences to share his bounty, because he could. It was never pity or guilt; it was always doing the right thing, because it’s right. We have so much to learn from our alte zeide It feels good to share this time together, again. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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