"We have to do something!" With those words, as we just completed Havdala in the Synagogue, a dear friend handed me an article from one of the local papers.
The article began, "Dear Neighbor,
We may not know each another or daven in the same shul, but until recently we had so very much in common. Like you, I dedicated the early part of my adult life to pursuing my education and attaining my advanced degrees. Like you, I davened with kavanah and was ultimately rewarded with a wonderful spouse and beautiful, caring, and healthy children.
‘Like you, I have spent the better part of the past 20-30 years trying to ﬁnd the right balance between work life, family life, learning, and chessed.
Like you, I’ve experienced the sticker shock of sending my children to yeshiva and summer camp. And like you, I scrimped and saved until I was able to collect enough for a down payment on the modest home in which my family and I now live. That’s what we have in common. What we perhaps don’t have in common, and what I pray you will never have to experience, is the pain I’ve had to endure every day since I became unemployed."
The writer goes on to describe how difficult life has become. Making ends meet while living in the community is difficult, doing so without a job, is impossible. He describes his own shame and the shame his family feels especially at being treated by others as if they carried some terrible contagious disease.
His attitude toward charity was greatly moving. He wrote: "As one who ﬁnds himself on the receiving end of tzedakah these days, I have a new appreciation for the importance of keeping these institutions well-funded. Indeed, were it not for the generosity of the local yeshiva high schools attended by my children, I suspect I would have had to put them in public schools.
And as for Tomchei Shabbos, I never in my wildest dreams (and nightmares) imagined that I would ever avail myself of their assistance. In my mind, food assistance was something the community provided to help the under—educated, the frail, and “the name less and faceless” folk who found themselves on the margins of society. Sadly, I’ve learned the harsh reality that multiple advanced degrees and a super-impressive resume is no guarantee that one will stay employed or ﬁnd employment.
Personally speaking, I’m now living in the margins right alongside everyone else on the food line."
Hearing these stories makes people very uncomfortable. Perhaps the thought of, "there but for the grace of Hashem go I", or guilt that communally we should be doing more, we find these tales difficult to bare. We all know someone who has gone from riches to rags virtually overnight and others who have lost jobs. We often struggle just to get by, imagine how much more difficult it is for them.
Included with the many misvot we read about this week, we are told “Im Kesef Telaveh - when you lend money to the poor”.
Rambam explains that lending money (and by extension giving someone a way to earn money by finding them a job) are the highest forms of Sedaka which we translate as charity but in reality relate to being just.
This week where we will announce Rosh Hodesh Adar to be celebrated on Sunday and Monday and with Purim and the misvah of matanot laEvyonim - gifts to the poor on the horizon in addition to Pesach with the requirement of Kimcha D'pischa relating to the age-old custom of giving charity before Pesach to the city's poor so they will be able to afford all their Passover needs is the perfect time to do a brief review of our own giving.
Rambam defines eight levels of Sedaka, each one higher than the preceding one.
On an ascending level, they are as follows:
8. When donations are given grudgingly.
7. When one gives less than he should, but does so cheerfully.
6. When one gives directly to the poor upon being asked.
5. When one gives directly to the poor without being asked.
4. Donations when the recipient is aware of the donor's identity, but the donor still doesn't know the specific identity of the recipient.
3. Donations when the donor is aware to whom the charity is being given, but the recipient is unaware of the source.
2. Giving assistance in such a way that the giver and recipient are unknown to each other. Communal funds, administered by responsible people are also in this category.
1. The highest form of charity is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, or by extending a suitable loan, or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.
Rabbi Yaakov Culi, author of Meam Loez writes about the wonderful charitable organizations in Constantinople in the early 1700s which he suggests be copied all over. In the same vein we can write about the wonderful organizations in our own community in Brooklyn including Bikur Cholim and the related Angel Fund and Sephardic Food Fund. The burden on each of us to give is incredible, but give we must. Each of these organizations does a tremendous job and through our gifts to them we fulfill the highest levels of charity.
I am especially impressed as to how these organizations go about their work and making sure that their clients, yes they call them clients, are taken care of and assisted in a dignified manner.
It behooves every community to have these programs in place and each community should assist the neighboring community in setting up systems based on their own knowledge and experience.
And with all the good, I was disappointed when searching on behalf of those who came to me for sources for interest free loans in the community, I was unable to find. We had a very strong free loan society, one established by my great uncle Dave Bibi and so many people over the years told me how it helped them, where are those societies today? If anyone can direct me, I would appreciate it.
And although we see so many people going through such difficult times, I doubt we have ever seen so many families with such wealth. Yes, they are a very small percentage of the community and others often assume that everyone is as wealthy, but with Hashem’s blessing we do have dozens of families blessed with assets in the hundreds of millions and even billions. They must remember that with tremendous wealth comes tremendous responsibility. The rabbis explain that this wealth has been entrusted to these families and they must use it to alleviate the pain of others. The challenge to each of these family fathers goes much further. They must not only give, but must get others to give and then use their connections to find jobs for those in need. They must make a phone call here, call in a favor there and beg and cajole if that’s what it takes to get those like the man who wrote the letter back to work in a job which will cover expenses and bring dignity back to his life.
At the same time, knowing that there are these wealthy individuals does not remove the burden from the rest of us. We too must use all our efforts to lift those in need up, to hire them, to find them jobs to assist them with their businesses and to build up their spirits. We all are obligated. We all have to do something.
Another troubling reality is that when we come to making our own purchases, we do not seek to make them within the community. Let me assure you, that even if you spend a few dollars more and give whatever business you can to those around you, you’ll know your dollars are supporting those families, paying those yeshiva bills and putting food on people’s tables, and serving as charity and you will surely be blessed by Hashem. Giving business to a member of the community is certainly a tremendous type of sedakah.
Our goal should be to not only give, but to transform every one of those clients on the receiving end to become self-supportive and eventually re-attain the level where they can give back to the community and others in need.
By: Rabbi David Bibi