The plane was floundering and in serious trouble. One engine after another was failing. Then the pilot made the dreaded announcement: “Dear passengers, we cannot continue the flight. We are going to have to make an emergency landing at the nearest open piece of ground. I will do my very best to keep us safe. But I ask you all to pray for us. Do something religious and may God almighty protect us all. Thank you.”
So, one devout Catholic passenger pulled out his rosary and prayed aloud in deep fervor. The Protestants began singing hymns. A Muslim passenger rolled out a little carpet in the aisle and prayed on his knees to Allah for a miracle. And Sarah Goldberg, a little old Jewish lady, went from row to row collecting donations for the United Jewish Appeal.
If there is one value and one mitzvah that unites all Jews regardless of denomination, political beliefs or degree of religious observance, it is unquestionably charity. Giving tzedakah is the single most unifying force in every Jewish community in the world.
I am not blowing our own horn. It is an indisputable fact that we are the philanthropic superheroes of the world. No one gives as much charity as Jews do. While I most certainly give credit to Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Co. for signing the Giving Pledge to donate the bulk of their billions to a global charity initiative, they are most certainly notable exceptions to the rule. And no, Jews do not only support our “own” causes—a favorite antisemitic accusation. On the contrary, if affluent Jews gave as much to Jewish causes as they do to non-Jewish ones, no Jewish organization would be in the red.
I recall hearing years ago from a fundraiser for United Jewish Communities in New York about how proud he was when he successfully secured a pledge for $5 million from a Jewish businessman in Manhattan. That is, until the next morning, when he opened The New York Times and read that the same fellow had just donated $9 million to Columbia University.
We have nothing to apologize for on that front.
This week in shul we will conclude the book of Exodus with Vayakhel and Pikudei. In the first reading, we come across a most extraordinary story. Moses asked the people to contribute their gold, silver, copper and other precious materials towards the construction of the very first House of God in history, the Mishkan (Sanctuary) in the wilderness. Remarkably, the people responded with such zealous generosity that in no time at all they had everything they required. Moses had to say “Dayenu! We already have more than enough!” This was surely the first and last time in history that a Jewish fundraising campaign was called off because the target had been reached early.
The Talmud tells the story of a Roman governor who confronted Rabbi Akiva and criticized the Jews’ preoccupation with giving charity: “You Jews are meddling with God’s plan. The Almighty created haves and have nots. Why are you interfering?” Rabbi Akiva explained patiently that God deliberately created an imperfect world so that we, humankind, might have the blessed opportunity of partnering with Him in perfecting His world. Far from interfering, we are, in fact, doing God’s work and making the world a better place, exactly as He intended us to do.
In the Ethics of the Fathers, the Mishna describes four different character types: The one who says “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” is described as the “average” type. But interestingly, according to another opinion, such an attitude is well below average. In fact, it is described as nothing less than a ruthlessness reminiscent of the wicked city of Sodom.
To deny the very concept of charity? To reject the idea of caring and sharing? What’s mine is mine and yours is yours and never the twain shall meet? How cold, calculating, cruel and supremely un-Godly.
As we approach our Festival of Freedom, there will no doubt be the usual pre-Passover appeals in every community. In fact, this is an ancient tradition called maot chittim, literally “money for wheat,” to help the indigent buy matzah.
I know making Pesach for our own family is expensive enough. But please don’t get exasperated by all the appeals. Embrace them. Do what you can (and maybe a bit more). Giving of our own for others is part of the spirit of our first, foundational chag and a shining cornerstone of our peoplehood and our faith.
Do you need a receipt?
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.