The Place of Ego When Doing the Mitzvah of Tzedakah
Leviticus 19:18 – Love others as you love yourself — overquoted and all-too-often cited as being the essence-and-entirety of religion is not so simple, particularly for biblical scholars. The syntax and therefore the meaning allows for several possibilities.*
Furthermore, rabbis, ministers, priests, and even snake-handling preachers a mere 20-30 miles off of Interstate 95 between Washington and Richmond have given sermons based on the verse perhaps not as numerous as the stars in the heavens, but close.
I want to work with only one example, that of Maimonides in his Sefer HaMitzvot, the work in which he counts all 613 Mitzvot. Loving the other is Positive Mitzvah #206: “Love others as you love yourself.”
Whatever I want for myself,
I want the same for that other person.
And whatever I do not want for myself or my friends,
I do not want for that other person.
This is the meaning of the verse,
“And you shall love the other person as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)
1. Living Jewishly is all about action. Exactly how do we do this?
2. Indeed, the root Alef-Hay-Bet (the basis of the word ‘love’) in Biblical times had as much an action-oriented denotation, as the modern-day emotional meaning
3. This text does not teach exactly what to do to bring the high-sounding verse alive in our lives.
4. However – this being one of my favorite guide-texts for the actual giving of Tzedakah and doing of Gemillut Chassadim — I consider it a crucial starting point when an individual is considering what to do with his or her money, and giving time, effort, stamina, and talents for others.
5. Pedagogically, as you will see, it is critical to be very specific. This is how it goes when I teach it:
a. I ask, “What do you want for yourself?”
b. The response, “Food.” Too general: you want plentiful food, nutritious food, uncontaminated food, affordable food, and fun food lacking any nutritional value when you need a psychological lift.
c. The response, “Clothing.” Too general: you want work clothes, clothes for Shabbat and holidays, lounge-around-home clothes, and fancier clothes for special occasions, say your daughter’s graduation for Jewish day school, complete with Best Student in Talmud award
d. The response, “Shelter”. Too general: you want to live in affordable housing, where it is safe, where the price of utilities is now prohibitive leaving your home unbearable in winter and summer, a place where the pictures on the wall are to your personal liking and you chose the colors and design for the comforter on the bed.
6. So, if I take Maimonides’ profound insight seriously, it should be abundantly clear that when the Rambam says, “want” for the other, it means we have to do something to make it happen.
Two examples should suffice:
1. If we want infants to be safe in our vehicles, then Jewish agencies, synagogues, youth groups, and concerned individuals should prioritize having infant car seat drives to gather the ones that still meet federal standards, and to use some Tzedakah money to purchase new ones…to be delivered to agencies and Mitzvah heroes who will distribute them efficiently and wisely.
2. Because I have diabetes, I take a combination of three medications whose names together sound like an exotic law firm. Because of Medicare, all except one, are very reasonably priced. A story from one of the Mitzvah heroes, Washingtonian Igor Feldblyum. Originally from St. Petersburg (Russia), he established Am Echad, a non-profit organization to provide for vulnerable elderly Jews in the city where he was born. He has a person there who makes the rounds, finds the people and the needs, and Igor provides the funds. One such situation concerned a woman with diabetes who lived in an apartment where there was a pharmacy on the ground floor. She told Igor’s contact, “Sometimes I go by the pharmacy and look at my medications.” Not only to me personally, but to anyone hearing the story, we should be motivated not only to insure that a man such as Igor has enough Tzedakah money to provide for as many people as possible. And the larger message is we must demonstrate by as many ways possible to establish a system of equitable health care for every – there, in our own country, everywhere. That is Tzedek – Justice.
While I don’t mean to imply that this is the end-all criterion for making our Mitzvah decisions, but I believe as a point of departure, it is the best one.
*An excellent detailed analysis may be found in Rabbi Jacob Milgrom’s thankfully massive Anchor Bible commentary to Leviticus.