Dignity, is a spiritual concept.
What does it mean to have Dignity?
This is especially important in an age when people are asking what this means and, in an age, when human dignity is assaulted through war, famine, violence, abortion, racism and other sins.
Instinctively we all feel that human life matters. We cringe when we hear of a new act of violence. We are horrified when we read of crippling poverty. We want to help the least fortunate. But why? What is it about humanity that matters? Why do we care about other human beings? Why not just look out for Number one, ourselves and ignore others.
The Bible gives a rich and full expression of what it means to be human.
The opening pages of Scripture make the radical declaration that, of all of G-d’s beautiful creation, we are his most prized creation. Moses takes great care to describe the way G-d crafted humans from the dust of the ground and breathed into humans the breath of life. And David, in Psalm 139, describes the intricate way in which G-d’s crafts every human life in the womb.
G-d has created each human in his image for his glory. Genesis tells us that humans reflect God. We were created after his image. This means humans have intrinsic value and worth. Humans were made by G-d with purpose, to both imitate him by ruling over creation and filling the earth with his glory.
Humanity is tied to the biblical concept of glory. G-d’s glory, His weightiness, His importance, His significance, is what the Bible uses to describe the fountainhead of all dignity.
And only G-d has eternal value and intrinsic (that is, in and of Himself) significance. I am a creature—I come from the dust. The dust isn’t all that significant, but I become significant when G-d scoops up that dust and molds it into a human being and breathes into it the breath of life and says, “This creature is made in my image.” G-d assigns eternal significance to temporal creatures. I don’t have anything in me that would demand that G-d treat me with eternal significance. I have eternal significance and eternal worth because G-d gives it to me.
And not only does He give it to me but He gives it to every human being. That’s why in the Bible the great commandment not only deals with our relationship with G-d but our relationships with human beings. “Thou shalt love the Lord your G-d with all your heart, with all your might, and with all your strength . . . and your neighbor as much as you love yourself,” because G-d has endowed every human creature with value.
There is a strange provision of Jewish law that
embodies this idea. “Even a poor person who is
dependent on tzedakah (charity) is obligated to give
tzedakah to another person.” (Rambam, Mishneh
Torah, Hilchot Mattenot Aniyim 7:5) On the face of it,
this makes no sense at all. Why should a person who
depends on charity be obligated to give charity? The
principle of tzedakah is surely that one who has more
than they need should give to one who has less than
they need. By definition, someone who is dependent on
tzedakah does not have more than they need.
The truth is, however, that tzedakah is not only
directed to people’s physical needs but also their
psychological situation. To need and receive tzedakah
is, according to one of Judaism’s most profound insights, inherently humiliating.
As we say in Birkat ha-Mazon, (the blessing after we eat a full meal) “Please, O Lord our G-d, do not make us dependent on the gifts or loans of other people, but
only on Your full, open, holy and generous hand so that
we may suffer neither shame nor humiliation forever
and for all time.”
Many of the laws of tzedakah reflect this fact,
such that it is preferable that the giver does not know to
whom they give, and the recipient does not know from
whom they receive. According to a famous ruling of
Maimonides the highest of all levels of tzedakah is, “to
fortify a fellow Jew and give them a gift, a loan, form
with them a partnership, or find work for them, until they are strong enough so that they do not need to ask
others [for sustenance].” (Ibid., 10:7)
This is not charity at all in the conventional sense. It is finding someone employment or helping them start a business.
Why then should it be the highest form of tzedakah? Because it is giving someone back their dignity.
Someone who is dependent on tzedakah has
physical needs, and these must be met by other people or by the community as a whole. But they also have psychological needs. That is why Jewish law rules that they must give to others. Giving confers dignity, and no one should be deprived of it.
Even Burglars must be concerned about their dignity as this Burglar found out when he broke into a house:
A burglar breaks into a house. He starts shining his light around looking for valuables. Some nice things catch his eye, and as he reaches for them, he hears, “G-d is watching you.”
Startled, the burglar looks for the speaker. Seeing no one, he keeps putting things in his bag, again, he hears, “G-d is watching you.”
This time, he sees a parrot. “Who are you?” the burglar asks.
“Moses,” the bird replied.
“Who the heck would name a bird Moses?” the man laughed.
“I don’t know,” Moses answered, “I guess the same kind of people that would name a Rottweiler King David.”