Rabbi Sandra Kviat – 24 August 2018
Tzedakah and Dirty Laundry
Two people are travelling through a desert. One of the people is carrying a bottle of water with just enough water to sustain one person. Whoever drinks the water will live; the other person will die. If both people drink half the water, both will die.1
What should they do?
The ancient rabbis argue that the owner of the bottle should drink it, using a biblical command from Leviticus that one should first save one’s own life before helping others. It’s a bit like the safety procedures from an airline – always put the oxygen mask over your own face before you help your children – as you are then able to help them whereas they might not be able to help you.
The story is a moral scenario created by the rabbis to help us think about our circles of responsibility to ourselves and others; who should we help and how do we make the choice. It’s important to notice that they do not try to determine the value of the people in the story relative to one another.
Does the rabbis’ answer make you feel uncomfortable? The problem certainly made them feel uncomfortable as we shall see in a different story.
But first – what constitutes our circles of responsibility? A major social responsibility in Judaism is tzedakah – which means righteousness, not charity as it is commonly used today. We see it mentioned in this week’s parasha; ‘u’lecha tihyeh tzedakah’ and it will be to your merit (Deut 24.12) -as in you will be considered righteous because of your behaviour.
In later rabbinic thinking the concept of tzedakah was defined as the commandment to help the poor, and not just as giving money to a worthy cause. Giving to other causes such as synagogues, communal institutions, and the city infrastructure are also mandated, but they do not count as tzedakah2 Only gifts that help alleviate poverty are tzedakah.
How much should we then give? If you have no limits on your wealth you should give as much as the problem requires. If, however, you are not Bill Gates, then the ruling is at least 10% but no more than 20% of your income, lest you bankrupt yourself and then become in need of tzedakah as well. It is important to note that though the rabbis talk about tzedakah as economic gifts or money, giving your time to help reduce poverty is also tzedakah.
The main question we haven’t answered is – how do we decide who to give tzedakah to?
The traditional answer is to ‘the poor of your city’ before the the poor of any other place (BT, Bava Metzia 71a). However, this solution has its own problems. In another rabbinic story we have two cities, one with a water supply, the other one without;
The rabbis argue that the inhabitants of the city with the well has the right to the water before the other city. However, if it’s only for the animals of the city with the well, the other city’s inhabitants has rights to the water. Rabbi Yosi says that the animals come before the people of the other city. If it’s a choice between doing laundry and the life of the inhabitants of the other city, the life of the others take precedent. Rabbi Yosi says that the laundry takes precedent over the lives of others. (Tosefta, Bava Metzia 11:33–37)
Rabbi Jill Jacobs who wrote ‘Where Justice Dwells, A Hands On guide to Social Justice’, writes about this story;
‘When I studied this text with several colleagues, one member of the group immediately responded that sources like these turn her off from text study. How, she asked, can we possibly accept as part of Jewish tradition the view of Rabbi Yosi, who seems prepared to sacrifice the lives of those living in a neighboring town in favor of washing his clothing? Another colleague responded, “We all do this all the time. I take my kids to water parks, even though I know that there are people in the world who don’t have water to drink.”’3
This story highlights the competing responsibilities we all face, between our own needs, local needs, and global needs. There are no easy answers as she writes;
‘In the context of a theoretical conversation, it is easy to say that we should always first provide drinking water to others. But if we are to be honest, we must admit that few of us are willing to accept a life in which we have little more than food, shelter, and basic items of clothing’.
Perhaps all of us are a bit more like Rabbi Yosi than we would like to think. For we do chose our ‘laundry’ over the basic survival of those further away from us. Or perhaps there is a realism in Rabbi Yosi’s prioritizing of those closer to us? Rabbi Jacobs writes; Our primary responsibilities are toward our families, our people, and the residents of our own town because of our intimate relationship with members of these groups—and not because we believe certain individuals to be more worthy of saving than others.4
Not everyone agrees with rabbi Yosi. The famous German rabbi Moshe Sofer argues that the starving person take precedence, even if they are not in your city. Only if you have starving people in both cities do you choose your own first, hereby changing the traditional principle that one should prioritize one’s own first5.
As we reflect in the weeks before the High Holy Days, let us each take some time to consider how we are doing tzedakah, and where we feel is the right place for us to be, between those closest to us and those with the most urgent needs. For as the sages say, ‘Whoever saves a life, saves a whole world’. Whether they are your neighbour or the stranger in another land.
1 Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community by Rabbi Jill Jacobs, 2011, footnote 8 to chapter 2, p.249.
2 Jill Jacobs article, Coming Up Short on the Tzedakah Yardstick, 9 December 2009, The Opinion.
3 Jill Jacobs, Where Justice Dwells, Chapter 2 and 3
4 Jill Jacobs, Where Justice Dwells.
5 Jill Jacobs, Where Justice Dwells.
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