I was walking to lunch with a good Christian friend, a minister who was inviting me to join in a charitable project his congregation had just begun. We passed a beggar on the street. She was sitting on a stoop; thin, gaunt, wearing sunglasses on a cloudy day, smoking a cigarette as she spoke: "Can either of you guys spare ten cents for a cup of coffee?" I thought, "Where can you get a cup of coffee for ten cents?" Nevertheless, I stuck my hand into my pocket as I do when I pass a beggar.
I didn't have any change. I never have any change: I leave it in my car or in a dish on my dresser or in a tzedakah box on the shelf, because I never want to carry change in my pockets, and I am not sure why. Usually, I have a dollar bill I can spare, but on this day, all I had were two twenties and a five. I gave her the five and walked on. "Wait," said the woman, "I want to give you a hug." "No thanks," I replied, "Just use it well."
We turned into the restaurant, and as we entered, my Christian friend said: "That was very kind." I replied: "What was?" He said: "Your gift to that woman." And I said, "It was probably more foolish than kind."
Somewhere within this stream of consciousness, we can find the meaning of this week's portion. And we can see the difference between the Christian concept of charity, which is based upon kindness, and the Jewish concept of tzedakah, which is based upon justice, as outlined directly in this week's portion, B'har/B'chukotai. Chapter 25 of the Book of Leviticus is all about the rights of the poor and the dispossessed: the justice they are due, the honor they are to be afforded, and the care that must be given to help lift them and their children from the cycle of poverty that can forever envelop their lives.
There is a sense of other-worldliness to this ideal. It seems quaint and honorable, but so far from the distance that now characterizes our giving and the receiving of our gift. We seldom meet the people whose lives our tzedakah will directly influence. And it is, I believe, that distance that causes us to lose sight of the tzedek beneath the tzedakah: the "justice," which is, or ought to be, at the root of all our "righteous deeds."
Imagine a more familiar memory of the Jewish value of tzedakah in the old country. Do you remember that moment in Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye walks by the town beggar and hands him a kopek. "One kopek?" says the beggar. "Last week you gave me two kopeks." "I am sorry," says Tevye, "I had a bad week." "So," says the beggar, "if you had a bad week, why should I suffer?"
There is a chutzpah in his response that makes us laugh, but at the same time there is a truth beneath the laughter that can lead us to wisdom. The Hebrew word tzedakah comes from the root word tzedek, which means, not charity, but "justice." Tzedakah is justice in action. The beggar has a right to his alms and we have a responsibility to give them: not because we are, or ought to be, "kind"; not because we are all part of a social compact in this golden land; not because we feel guilty because we have achieved whatever we may have achieved; not because crime and disease might otherwise spread from the lower classes. Giving tzedakah is the right thing to do, the righteous thing to do. From a Jewish perspective, it is as simple as that.
There are legions of stories about the prophet Elijah who comes to us in the guise of a homeless beggar on the street. In many of them, he is treated badly, and so the coming of the messianic age, which he would foretell, is delayed. In most of these tales, he is befriended by righteous souls who share whatever they might have and are then rewarded with what they truly need.
These are simple stories on the surface: treat the beggar like the herald of the messiah for you never know what good might come. And yet, beneath these stories is a much deeper lesson on life. Elijah comes not with presents in his bag for the lucky few who might know how to play the game. It is a simpler test than that. Elijah comes in these stories as an aid to the righteous, and the giving of tzedakah is the simplest of tests. A "righteous soul," a tzadik, gives tzedakah even when there may be no benefit in the giving. The question Elijah comes to ask us is simply this: "Are you a tzadik? Are you a righteous soul?"
The challenge we face in the modern age is to recognize this value, the righteousness of righteous deeds, even when there may be no immediate benefit for us. With each chance encounter with the needy, we stand in the presence of the Most High. Perhaps, this time we will meet Elijah or, perhaps, we might begin something greater still. Perhaps, we might become Elijah and together become heralds of a better age.
On the way out the door, my Christian friend and I passed the same woman on the same stoop, wearing the same sunglasses, smoking the same cigarette, or so it would seem. "Hey", she said again, "can you spare ten cents for a cup of coffee?" I smiled, but my friend said, "He just gave you five dollars." "I know he did," said the beggar, "I remember. But you haven't given me anything today."
She didn't look like Elijah. I am pretty sure that Elijah doesn't smoke or wear shades. But she had a little of the chutzpah of the beggar from Fiddler on the Roof, and she reminded me a little of the justice, the tzedakah, that every tzadik must do.
Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport is co-senior rabbi with his wife Rabbi Gaylia R. Rooks at The Temple, Congregation Adath Israel Brith Sholom, in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his Ph.D. from Washington University in 1988 and has taught Bible and Jewish thought for two decades at Bellarmine University.
With this double portion, we conclude the Book of Leviticus. B'har/B'chukotai is more than an ending; it is a warning to remember that the earth does not belong to us-the earth belongs to the Divine. What we do-the meaning of our actions-is not about right or wrong, charity or justice. For the Torah, our human deeds reflect an understanding of who we are in relation to the Divine and the world in which we live.
Everything in life is about relationships. Are we close with our loved ones or do we keep ourselves apart? Do we engage with our neighbors or do we build barriers that separate us? Do we seek through our actions to be closer to the Divine or do we permit ourselves an estrangement that eventually leads to our own destruction and the destruction of our world?
This is the concern of B'har/B'chukotai. For us, as Jews, such a warning should be important. The nature of the covenant between us and the Divine is that we are stewards of the earth that has been given to us as a gift. The kind of stewardship we provide determines how we care for our world and for each other. If our stewardship is one of arrogance, then we have missed the point of what it means to be a Jew. Neither should it be of complacency. B'har/Bchokotai calls for humility in all that we do, for such humility is what leads to blessing. If we are humble in the way we cherish the earth, then we will not abuse it. If we are humble in the way we approach our fellow human beings, then we will understand how fortunate we are and what a privilege it is to share with others this incredible world given to us by the Divine.
Our stewardship of the world should possess an understanding that what we do does matter, that our actions reflect our true beliefs, and that such actions have consequences.
Rabbi Bennett F. Miller is senior rabbi of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He serves on the faculty of the doctor of ministry program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He earned his DMin at Princeton Theological Seminary.
"B’chukotai, Leviticus 26:3-27:34
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 957-970; Revised Edition, pp. 864-879;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 765-786"