The Mitzvah: When it comes to giving tzedakah, the Jew is obligated for
Jew to open out his heart. In a loving, wholehearted manner, he is to
bestow kindness and charity to all those in need. This commandment goes
beyond offering a modest monetary contribution to relieve one's conscience.
Instead, the focus, at all times, is on the welfare and betterment of his
fellow human beings - Jew and non-Jew alike - such that every attempt is
made to uphold the dignity of the beneficiary.
The reason why a Jew gives extra concern to this mitzvah, explains
Maimonides (Laws of Giving to the Poor 10:1), is because "performance of
charitable actions is a sure sign that one is a righteous descendant of
Avraham, as it states 'I [G-d] have loved him [Avraham] because he commands
his children and his household after him that they keep the way of G-d,
doing tzedakah' (Genesis 18:19).
The Jewish preoccupation on giving charity has its roots in the illustrious
example of Avraham, whose kindness was showered to one and all. Indeed, the
magnanimity of the frail, one hundred-year old patriarch, just three days
after his circumcision and his exemplary hospitality, jars, most
strikingly, with the Torah's narrative chartering Sedom's wickedness and
Ideologically opposed to all that Avraham represented, the citizens of
Sedom outlawed all acts of kindness and charity. Hospitality and
benevolence were criminal offenses - such that Lot placed himself in grave
danger by emulating his uncle and inviting the three guests into his home.
In the end, only Lot and his two unwed daughters escaped the Wrath of G-d
overturning the lush and fertile lands of Sedom and her environs (Genesis
13:10) into "sulphur and salt, a conflagration of the whole Land, it
cannot be sown and it cannot sprout." (Deuteronomy 29:22).
The townsfolk's failure to fulfill charitable acts led to their appropriate
comeuppance in death and their fertile land reduced into a barren
Tzedakah involves emulating G-d's altruistic acts of goodness, namely the
bestowing of oneself -and one's energies and assets - onto others. This is
some of the depth in the observation "More does the poor man do for the
rich man, than the rich man does for the poor man" (Midrash, Vayikra Rabbah
34:8). It is a mistake to think that it is just the recipient who benefits;
rather, it attunes and refines the giver himself because, with his very
acts of kindness, he is imitating G-d "the Supreme Giver".
However the Sedomite's philosophy of "what's yours is yours, what's mine is
mine" (Ethics of the Fathers 5:13) precluded developing any
interrelationship with one's fellow man. It fails -on the most basic
level - to foster kindness and charity to all members of mankind - even
those outside the boundaries of Sedom. Being members of society imparts
mutual responsibility. It behooves man to interact and relate with others,
granting him umpteen opportunities for kindness and charities.
King Solomon proclaimed "Tzedakah saves from death" (Proverbs 10:2).
Charity relieves the recipient and preserves his life. Consequently, not
enacting tzedakah to fellow humans that prolongs life, the corrupt town of
Sedom was automatically doomed to certain and immediate death.
Giving of tzedakah is termed "planting", as in the words of the
prophet "Sow charity for yourself and you will reap according to kindness"
(Hosea 10:12). The Jewish approach to life is where a person sees all his
acquisitions - without exception - as potential investments. Thus life is
all about "investing in eternity". How does he do this? Certainly not by
squandering his wealth on transient objects - on grand mansions, fast cars
or fine food! Instead, his possessions are viewed as "seeds" that he has
to "sow" and "plant" in this world. Only then, will he benefit to
thereafter reap the "fruit" of his labor in the timeless rewards in the
world to come. That is what tzedakah is all about.
Conversely, the people of Sedom's lack of tzedakah belied a spiritual
ability to grow and invest their riches to earn eternity. Not only did they
not refine the divine trait of being a "giver", all their wealth was
squandered and was for naught. The everlasting legacy commemorating their
destruction was their land's inability to be "sown" and to "sprout"
vegetation (Deuteronomy 29:22). This reflects the spiritual reality - that
the people of Sedom were not "productive" and would not inherit any portion
in the world to come (Talmud, Sanhedrin 107).
Symptomatic of their identity as Avraham's descendants, the Jewish people's
pursuit of tzedakah is the surefire sign of their heritage. They rightly
expend all their efforts and energies in each and every charitable cause in
this precious mitzvah.