By Ezra Shanken
There is no doubt that this has been a ‘unique' year to be a fundraiser for the Jewish community. I use the word ‘unique' in place of words like tragic, challenging, and catastrophic to set apart current financial pressures from the dire circumstances around the world that the Jewish community handles on an ongoing basis. These times provide an opportunity to refocus the work that we do -- by re-embracing our traditional understanding of the term tzedakah and emphasizing one transformative tool: "soul."
Soul is the inner voice that drives us to do good in the world. Tzedakah, from the Hebrew root for the word "righteousness," is one way of acting on the soul's call to do good, to set things right. Giving tzedakah has long been in the toolbox of the Jewish community, connecting us to 3,000 years of values that originate in the Torah and sustain our community. Though commonly used synonymously with charity, tzedakah provides an added value: it is a mitzvah -- an obligation that Jews have to help the less fortunate as a means of achieving justice in the world. When we participate in the mitzvah of tzedakah, it not only helps the recipients, but it also helps us by connecting us to our soul's purpose. With this shift, it becomes clear that raising money is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end, with the end being engaging in the work of justice and a fundamental aspect of Jewish identity.
In philanthropy, which is the institutionalized manifestation of charity, we can encourage giving by building personal relationships with donors and enabling them to fund the causes closest to their hearts. But by pushing ourselves to look beyond our particular interests, to place tzedakah as a righteous, soul-satisfying pursuit at the top of the pyramid, we can elevate the entire structure of Jewish giving as we know it. And in this unique time, when necessity dictates pulling purse strings tighter, emphasizing the soul-enriching aspects of tzedakah may help ensure that it will be one of the final items to get crossed off the budget.
I once heard a story about two rabbis living in Russia hundreds of years ago, when debtors' prisons were all the rage. In one of the non-descript shtetls that dotted the Russian landscape, a naïve Jewish man who is pure of heart gets in too deep and is unable to pay the money back. Subsequently he is sent to debtors' prison, which makes our maximum security prisons here in the United States look like country clubs. The two prominent rabbis hear this man's unfortunate story and decide that they would raise the money to get him out of prison by approaching to a very wealthy Jewish man in their town. This man has the money to bail a thousand people out of debtors' prison, but had never given even one kopek (penny) of tzedakah.
With trepidation, the rabbis head down the road to the huge estate of the wealthy man. The wealthy man, so flattered by the visit of these two great rabbis, agrees to hear their pitch. As the rabbis tell him the story of the pure-hearted man suffering in debtor's prison they notice their message seems to be getting through. Sure enough, as they finish their request the wealthy man tells them that he would be happy to help. He stands up, removes from his dresser a lush velvet coin sack, and hands the rabbi one rusty kopek. The rabbi who took the kopek from him lights up with elation and thanks him profusely. The other rabbi, shocked by the very small gift, is dumbfounded by his fellow rabbi's appreciation.
As the rabbis walk across the courtyard of the enormous house, he bursts out, "How can you be so appreciative?! What is there to be thankful for? That miser should have given us one thousand rubles and you thank him for parting with one measly kopek!" His colleague turns and gave this wonderful answer: "I'm thankful that we enabled him to fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah. That man had been trying to give that kopek as tzedakah all his life and we were privileged to help him do so." As they walk away, the wealthy man comes running out of his house, shouting towards the rabbis. "Rabbis, wait! Please, return with me! I want to give more." When the rabbis again leave his home later that evening, they carry with them enough money to redeem the desperate prisoner.