William Hamilton
William Hamilton

Tzedaka’s surprise

“Come back to bed” an annoyed wife insisted as her husband paced the bedroom floor at 4:00 am.  “I can’t” he anxiously said. “I owe our neighbor, Goldstein, $500.  It’s due tomorrow and I don’t have the money to pay him.” His wife climbs out of bed, opens the window, and shouts across the courtyard, “Goldstein!  Goldstein!”  A man wearily limps over to open his window, “What is it?” he mutters.  “You know the money my husband owes you that’s due tomorrow?” “Yes” he replies.  She fires back, “Well, he doesn’t have it.”  Whereupon she shuts the window, turns to point to her husband, and exclaims, “Now you sleep, and let him pace the floor!”

A manipulative way of managing burdens is to saddle others with them.  Sleepless nights become more restful when problem-solving is transferred to somebody else.  Really?  Isn’t it also true that personal accountability for working through challenges will help us sleep soundly?

One of the Torah’s four mentions of the Hebrew word for righteous generosity, Tzedaka, occurs in this week’s portion.  Surprisingly, the focus of the act is not the recipient but the giver.  “You shall restore to him the pledge as the sun sets, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you, (u’lecha ti’h’ye tzedakah) and it shall be righteousness for you before the Lord your God” (Deut 24:13).  When time-sensitive generosity obtains, both the receiver and the giver enjoy a good night’s sleep.

Moreover, doing good for others is not intended to make us feel self-righteous.  It aims to enable us to experience the merit of Tzedakah before the Lord our God.  The lesson is clear: the weightier the responsibility, the heftier the merit.

“The more we do for God’s sake, the more we receive for ours” wrote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Intrinsic goodness multiplies beneficiaries.  This is Tzedaka’s surprise.

May this Elul season enable us to feel responsibilities reciprocity in ways that keep us all well-rested and refreshed.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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