UWCC received a donation from an east coast Rabbi and his wife last week. When I called to thank them, a beautiful story unfolded.
For the last year, the two of them have been traveling to broaden their awareness of need in communities around the US. Along the way they worked towards their goal of giving to every United Way in America. He talked about the concept of Tzedakah, and he explained it like this:
When it comes to dealing with the poor, we get it wrong so often.
Even the wording we use is misleading. We use words like, “giving,” “charity” and “philanthropy”. They imply that relating to the needs of others involves generosity or caring, and is somewhat optional.
Charity comes from “caritas” which has to do with the heart and from which we get the word caring.
Philanthropy means a love of people.
Even the words, “giving” and “donation” imply that we own the things we are giving away.
Tzedakah is the Hebrew word we inherited for relating to the needs of others. Though it is translated as “charity” that distracts from the main point. It is better understood as citizen’s obligation, responsibility or righteousness. Its shades of meaning don’t revolve around feelings, they overlap with justice. We don’t do tzedakah because we are so moved or because it feels good. Those are nice side effects that are often present. We do tzedakah because we must.
This conversation reminded me of one of the fundamental reasons we do this. We help because it’s a part of the definition of community. Because the world we want to live in can only exist if we share, when we can, with the vulnerable. If we behave like family.