A more readable and up-to-date translation of Isaiah 59:6-9 reads as follows: “No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke (Is. 58:6). It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin (Is. 58:7). Then shall your light burst through like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly; Your vindicator shall march before you, The Presence of the L-RD shall be your rear guard (Is. 58:8). Then, when you call, the L-RD will answer; When you cry, He will say: ‘Here I am [Hineni].’ If you banish the yoke from your midst, The menacing hand, and evil speech.”
In 2011, I traveled to Southeast Asia with a cohort of classmates from American University from Washington, D.C. Each of us would work and study in Southeast Asia over the summer. Students took positions at Agent Orange Legacy, an NGO that addresses the wartime legacies of the Vietnam War, including the health consequences of Agent Orange; the UNHCR, which works with refugees fleeing to Malaysia; and other governmental, intragovernmental and nongovernmental organizations in the region. Over the summer, we lived, worked and learned in Vietnam and Malaysia, specifically about their economic development and rapidly evolving geopolitical positions in the region. However, it was not my lofty goals of saving the world, studying the country nor working for these organizations that really impacted me the most. I was a medic for several years in Israel and in the United States before coming to Vietnam. I had already learned that when you go looking for tragedy, it should not shock you when you find it. In contrast, when you are not particularly searching for something, what you encounter can have the most lasting impression. Such was the case in Vietnam. One evening, I was eating dinner with my colleague. As we finished dinner and began to chat about our experiences, our forks rested on the table. Seconds into our conversation, a women approached us. She was not a beggar. We saw beggars every day in Vietnam. She was beyond that and into the stage of impoverishment. She was emaciated, and her bones protruded from her skin. Her eyes, which had retracted in her skull, were missing their human quality. Only today, after completing a master’s in Holocaust and genocide studies, can I find the words to describe her state. She had become a muselmann, a German word to describe someone in the final stages of starvation and exhaustion and appeared resigned to impending death. She was one of the countless victims of food insecurity, of economic injustice.
Tzedakah is a form of remedying such economic injustices. Tzedakah is also connected to teshuvah and to G-d in a very visceral, spiritual way. Isaiah 58:7 essentially states, “What does it mean to share your bread with the hungry, care for the poor, and recognize your kin.”We read these verses on Yom Kippur because caring for the poor (tzedakah) is a major tenet of Judaism. It is in our DNA as Jews. Fighting for social welfare and equality has been our calling for a millennium, and these verses are the genesis of our experience in this department. The choice to read these verses today is a textual choice that highlights our pursuit of these endeavors. Only through the fulfillment of this mitzvah will G-d hear us, hineni.
Something impacts you when you see someone starving. At the time, I could not place it. I sat with it. I could not shake it off. If anyone has seen a starving human before, you may understand what I am speaking about. I still think about her today. I thought of my grandfather, who survived the war in a concentration camp. I thought of people around me. Who did this woman remind me of? Why couldn’t I let this go? I had seen much worse. I believe our sages’ input on the verses from Isaiah can elucidate why this experience bothers me so much.
In terms of halakhic law, Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor 10:16 deliberately brings up our communal responsibilities to the poor: “So also one should give sustenance to one’s father and mother, for this is essential tzedakah. It is an important principle of tzedakah that a relative takes precedence [over another]. All who give food and drink to the poor and the orphans from his own table can call to God and he will be answered with joy, as it is said, (Isaiah 58:9) Then, when you call, the L-RD will answer.” Halakhic law states that although friends and relatives have a precedent over strangers in our midst, we still have a responsibility to the strangers as well. Mishnah Peah 1 states that portions of agricultural produce must be designated to the poor. Exactly how much tzedakah, what portion of income or what constitutes as disposable income, especially once national taxes are accounted for, is greatly debated by rabbis per halakhic law. Biblically, tithes originally referred to a tenth of a person’s income. However, the Rambam, who was realistic to a world beyond the biblical period, wrote in Hilchot Teshuvah 2:4, “One should give charity according to one’s capacity. One should [also] distance oneself from one’s sinful behavior.” At the root of these interpretations, however, one cannot deny that tzedakah is tied to teshuvah.
The later innovation of the tradition of kapparot, a practiced custom leading up to Yom Kippur, is also tied to communal responsibilities. During the period of Yamim Noraim, Jews slaughter a chicken in a ritual that involves quickly cutting the bird’s throat and reciting a prayer prior to its death. The chicken is then carted off as a meal to families struggling with food insecurity. The translated prayer states explicitly, “This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my expiation. This chicken shall go to death and I shall proceed to a good, long life and peace.”The ritual and liturgical choices of the prayer indicate that the ritual symbolizes the absolution of sins. Those who consider this tradition to be utterly barbaric and cruel are allowed to substitute the chicken for money. The money is then given as tzedakah.
In terms of both halakhic law and the practice of kapparot, communal responsibilities for the poor is a Jewish responsibility. We must strive for the survival of poor people. The woman in Vietnam suffered from economic injustice, from a society that forgot her and could not provide for her. She suffered from the failures and inefficiencies of a one-party communist state.
Talmudic and midrashic sources citing the same verse from Isaiah mention tzedakah and the impact it has on us as individuals. Bava Batra 9a:13 states, “And Rabbi Yitzḥak says: Anyone who gives a peruta [roman coinage] to a poor person receives six blessings, and whoever consoles him with words of comfort and encouragement receives eleven blessings. The Gemara explains: One who gives a peruta to a poor person receives six blessings, as it is written: “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you shall bring the poor that are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him” (Isaiah 58:6). The Talmud here eloquently describes that the aim of tzedakah is elevated as a spiritual pursuit and its reward is to ourselves.
Midrashic sources from Yevamot 6:7 state that “our Rabbis were taught: He who loves his neighbors, befriends his relatives, and who lends money to the poor when in distress, concerning him the passage says (Is. 58:9) Then shalt thou call, and the L-rd will answer: Thou shalt cry, and He will say, Here am I.” Yevamot also indicates that to engage in a direct dialogue with G-d, lending money to those who are in need is absolutely necessary.
While I am hesitant to say that our purpose should be self-serving in giving tzedakah, giving tzedakah or food to someone who is starving actually does something to us. When the woman in Vietnam began rummaging through our garbage at the table looking for food, I stood in shock at what I saw. She was shooed away by the owner. I had nothing—no change, no money to give her—and she was gone as quickly as she appeared. I have often wondered if I had given her something, whether this experience would have been less upsetting. After studying midrashic and Talmudic sources, I am inclined to believe it would have had an impact on me.
Tzedakah is in our DNA as Jews. The seed was planted in the Torah, and it sprouted during the rabbinical period but blossomed during the modern period. Think of modern Jewish endeavors dedicated to the fight for the poor. The Labour Bund, which emanated from Eastern Europe; the American Federation of Labor; and the International Jewish Labor Bund all fought tooth and nail for labor rights, livable wages and equality. The Workmen’s Circle was founded under these principles, and, true to its name, it continues to fight for the principles it was created to protect. Newspapers such as the Daily Forward, Algemeiner Journaland Jewish Standardhave perpetuated messages of equality and economic justice.
Inside my office, mounted on the wall, is a picture of two young Jewish women. To the right, one woman stands wearing a sash with the English words, “Abolish Child Slavery.” To the left is another woman standing with the same sash but written in Yiddish, נידער מיט קינדער שקלאפערײ (Nider mit kinder Schklawery). This picture perfectly encapsulates the Jewish experience with economic exploitation. Slavery is the most repulsive form of economic servitude and exploitation. Tzedakah and economic justice have not been lost to us in our 2,000-year exile, and it is something we must fight and pay for.