Moving beyond charity

One of the biggest misnomers in the Jewish vocabulary is the translation of tzedakah as “charity.” This mistranslation has gone on for so long in the American< Jewish community that it's a hard habit to break. Most Hebrew school kids will give this answer when asked, much as they will say that mitzvah means "good deed" (another misnomer, for another column).

Tzedakah is much more than charity since it comes from the word tzedek, which means “justice.” When looked at in this light, the giving of tzedakah is so much more than charity; charity seems to indicate something we give voluntarily and only to those who are less fortunate than we. Tzedakah, while it might come in the form of monetary giving, is a commandment that calls us to a much more profound level of interaction with the world than just writing a check to a worthy organization.

Don’t get me wrong — there is nothing wrong with writing checks. It’s just that this is not the end of — nor the essence of — tzedakah. Rather, as a commentator reminds us in regard to this week’s parshah, Shoftim, tzedakah is intimately connected to creating a meaningful and just legal system.

This parshah is the call to justice par excellence in the Torah, for it includes the famous verse, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (justice, justice you shall pursue), which, according to Chasidic master Simcha Bunem, reminds us that justice is to be pursued by just means, unlike many of the false, doublespeak pursuits of justice that we have witnessed throughout history (and in our own day, where so-called justice is pursued for selfish ends).

But I am most interested in the opening line, where the Torah calls on us to “appoint judges and magistrates in all our gates, the places that God gives to you, and you shall judge the people with righteous justice (mishpat tzedek)” (Deuteronomy 16:18).

What does “righteous justice” mean?

Commenting on this verse, the great 19th century master, Chatam Sofer, says it relates to a verse from the prophet Hosea, “v’erastich li b’tzedek uv’mishpat, uv’chesed uv’rachamim,” a line about God betrothing us with justice (tzedek), law (mishpat), kindness (chesed) and compassion (rachamim), which we say while putting on tefillin in the morning. According to a midrash, God provides the world with kindness and compassion, and we provide justice and law, thereby creating a balanced and holy alliance. It’s a tangible and beautiful way of conceptualizing the covenant between divinity and humanity. Chatam Sofer goes on to say that “God gives us space to create homes, societies and communities, out of love and compassion, and it is up to us to create them with justice and righteousness, by creating laws that are fair and just for all members.”

This is the true meaning of tzedakah: not charity, but justice.

And in a fascinating connection, another commentator, in the 20th century collection of teachings Likutei Yehudah, says that it is precisely for this reason that Shoftim follows last week’s parshah, Re’eh, which mentions the mitzvah of tzedakah; without justice, there is no tzedakah, and without tzedakah, there is no justice. This is a powerful and profoundly relevant teaching for our time.

In envisioning a world where the interaction between justice and tzedakah is a reality, we are blessed in today’s age to have amazing organizations in our community, like the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which has helped to redefine what giving means. Not only do they collect money, but they distribute it in a way that helps people achieve sustainable development; they bring people — young people especially — to work in developing nations, offering participants a firsthand look at true poverty and a hands-on way to help alleviate it. They seek to reshape the global landscape with just solutions for systemic problems. AJWS and its volunteers do this because the Torah calls on us to be just in our ways. They are living the words of the Chatam Sofer, leading us in our part of the covenant.

I believe that our nation as a whole can learn a great deal from AJWS, as we seek to recapture a sense of justice and righteousness in our country, for one could argue that we are taking God’s compassion and kindness for granted.

Mishpat tzedek, just laws, must seek ways to be as inclusive as possible, bringing people together, not tearing them apart. Until we work together as a human family to guarantee tzedek — true justice and not just charity — we will not be fully living up to the potential that Parshat Shoftim calls us towards. Americans are a very generous people in regard to charity, and Jewish Americans especially. Let us turn our efforts now with as much vigor toward justice, fashioning an even more holy society based on mishpat tzedek, the great confluence of law and righteousness. True tzedakah can change our world in a way that charity alone cannot.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center ( He also serves as national secretary of Brit Tzedek V’shalom, corresponding secretary of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and on the board of Jewish World Watch. He welcomes your comments at

Ask Wendy

Loose Lips Sink Schools

Dear Wendy,

I have spent hundreds of hours volunteering at my children’s
school and I am an active member of the parent council. My kids love the school
and would hate to leave, but there seems to be a problem with loose lips. After
discussing my daughter’s personal problem with one of her teachers, I learned
that this teacher had told another student — who then told others — about the
conversation. In a separate incident I approached the principal about a
suspicion my daughter had concerning her music teacher. The principal then
talked this over with the music teacher, indicating who had lodged the
complaint. Should I change schools?

Surrounded By Blabbermouths

Dear Surrounded ,

There are indeed loose lips around and they include those on
your own face. In the first case, the teacher clearly betrayed your confidence.
However, the teacher would have been in no such position had you not betrayed
your daughter’s confidence in the first place. Did you ask her permission
before entering into this discussion with her teacher? As for the second
incident, the McCarthy era is over; if you lodge a complaint against a teacher,
he must be permitted to defend himself. It may indeed be time for you to change
schools: Volunteer your hundreds of hours elsewhere and create a clearer line
between your life and your children’s. They, however, should remain where they
are happy — which is to say exactly where they are.

Money for Parents?

Dear Wendy,

My parents asked me to buy them a condominium in a swank
building. I can afford to do so (even though the amount is not pocket change to
me) but I turned them down. My parents have saved up all of their lives and
have put aside a sizable nest egg, and have the financial wherewithal to
purchase the apartment for themselves. Since I said no, I sense a distance
between us. I would help my parents if they needed food, clothing and shelter
even if I could not afford it, but last time I read the Ten Commandments it
didn’t mention that children are responsible for purchasing their parents a
condo in an exclusive high rise.

Daughter in Doubt

Dear Daughter,

Parenting isn’t an investment any canny broker would make:
it requires massive outlays, with no guaranteed returns. And at best, the
returns are intangible ones. Which is to say there is no obligation to buy your
parents a condo. There is an obligation to pay dividends in love and attention.
A gift certificate for regular visits to the condo your parents buy themselves
sounds about right to me.

My Kid Saw Me Lie

Dear Wendy,

Last week my 4-year-old caught me in a white lie. She
overheard me tell my sister-in-law that one of my children was sick and that we
would be unable to attend the family dinner. My husband finds get-togethers
with his family so stressful that I was doing him a favor by bowing out of the
dinner without hurting anyone’s feelings. I saved my husband, but I raised a
lot of questions for my daughter. Now what?

Pinocchio Mom

Dear Pinocchio,

I know there are many people who believe that lying of any
kind — even a smallish white lie — is unacceptable. I don’t happen to stand on
that side of the fence. Depending on how old your child is, I suggest you now
tell her as much of the truth as you feel she is able to understand. She isn’t
too young to hear that people sometimes beg off of invitations, even if she is
too young to hear that people sometimes beg off of invitations issued by their
own families. In the future, best not to use your own children as part of any
lie you may spin.

Should Mom Move?

Dear Wendy,

My ailing mother-in-law lives on the opposite coast from her
daughter, two grandchildren and me. We have been encouraging her for many years
to come live near us so that we can be together and she can enjoy her
grandchildren. She does not have close friends or established support systems
where she now lives. But despite our repeated efforts we have yet to make any
headway. How can we help her to make this transition? 

Long Distance In-Law

Dear Long Distance,

You want to be close to your ailing mother-in-law and want
your children to enjoy her company while she can still enjoy theirs. I have the
perfect solution: You and your family should move cross-country to be closer to
her. Some people might think that a major move — particularly in one’s old age
— would be difficult and disruptive, and would read your mother-in-law’s lack
of headway as a clear message. But not you. Since you don’t seem to think a
move is too much to ask — and since you do have youth on your side — you
relocate. If you are not prepared to call the movers, it may be time to accept
that long-distance phone calls are as close as you’re going to get to daily contact
with your mother-in-law.

Torah Portion

It is wonderful to volunteer more, do more, commit more. But our tradition, with love and practicality, offers this caution: Check first that your basic obligations are met.

Who is greater: a person who is obligated to perform a certain act and does, or a person who is not obligated to perform the act but does it anyway? According to modern sensibilities, the second person is a hero, whereas the first may just be a drone. According to the Talmud, however, the first person is the hero. It is often easy and fun to volunteer. Whatever you do is appreciated, and when you get bored, you can stop. It is difficult and rare, however, to fulfill one’s own obligations constantly.

Yes, we appreciate those who go beyond the letter of the law, or go lifnim meshurat hadin. A world in which people fulfill worthy tasks they have not been assigned is likely to be full of pleasant surprises. But that world would not be nearly so pleasant or safe as one in which everyone simply and reliably did his or her duty. To explain the Talmudic hierarchy of values, consider how you respond to deadlines. My writer friends and I have discussed how that a month before a book is due, our closets are clean, our correspondence is updated, our desks are organized, and — while we are getting ourselves and our offices “ready” — our manuscripts are neglected. Human fears and resistance dictate that it is easier to tackle what is discretionary than what is required.

The Torah portion Naso includes laws of the Nazarite. Nazarites assumed additional obligations, beyond the commandments given to all Israelites. They vowed, for a period that could range from 30 days to an entire lifetime, not to cut their hair, not to drink intoxicants, and not to come into contact with dead bodies. Often, the vows were inspired by a danger or illness that was overcome. Other times, piety was the only motive. These men and women went lifnim meshurat hadin. Yet all Nazarites who successfully fulfilled their vows were instructed to present a sin-offering. What was the sin? The Rabbis teach that it was arrogance. Are you so confident of executing the commandments that you take on additional vows? Love of God may well drive that decision, but so, to some degree, does hubris.

Later in Naso, leaders from each tribe bring offerings for the dedication of the altar. Nachson of the tribe Judah comes first, and it takes six verses to list the gifts: one silver dish and one silver basin, each of a certain weight, and each filled with flour and oil; a gold ladle of a certain measure, full of incense; one bullock, two oxen and six goats for various sacrifices. Curiously, this listing is repeated in full for each of the subsequent tribes; all brought the same exact sacrifice.

Yet the Bible takes 77 verses to convey information that might have been communicated in just six or seven lines. This twelvefold repetition in our normally laconic text imparts a message about the equality of the contributions. According to popular interpretation, it shows that no tribe was superior to any other. At the same time, the repetition also drives home the importance of doing what the community does, of bringing what the community brings. Nothing less will do, but something more may be distracting. There is a danger that “more” may be an exercise in self-importance, rather than generosity. And adding new items along the way could lead you to forget a bullock — or a mitzvah.

It is wonderful to volunteer more, do more, commit more. But our tradition, with love and practicality, offers this caution: Check first that your basic obligations are met. Give more when the gifts already promised are on the altar.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, co-editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” will be installed this Friday night as a spiritual leader at Makom Ohr Shalom Congregation in Tarzana.