Tzedakah is translated as charity or justice. Performing justice or charity is probably one of the most important obligations of a Jew. Also like tzedakah, another type of mitzvoth are gemilut hasadim, which are acts of loving-kindness. These sometimes can be more important than charity. For some people friendship is more important than money. Maimonides, who is also known as Rambam, created Rambam's ladder, which is a guide towards righteousness. Maimonides was born in Cordoba, Spain, in the 12th century. He was a physician, a philosopher, and a scholar. Though most of his writing is arcane, Maimonides knew how to sell an idea. He said no other single idea was more important than learning how to give with compassion and common sense. He created an 8-step ladder. Today I will be talking about what each of the 8 steps are, and giving an example for each of them. Here they are in order of least righteous to most righteous.
- Giving begrudgingly
- Giving less than you should, but giving it cheerfully
- Giving after being asked
- Giving before being asked
- Giving when you do not know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient knows yours
- Giving when you know the recipient, but the recipient does not know your identity
- Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity
- Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant
Though I will give you an example for each of the 8 steps, I think there are many examples that do not fall under any category or may fall under many. For example, here are two examples like that.
Suppose a poor man in desperate need of food and money for his family approaches two dentists who make the same salary. The man tells them his horrible story and the first dentist cries and then out of the goodness of his heart gives 5 dollars. The second dentist, although concerned, does not cry, and in fact has to rush away, but because of his religion that commands him to give 10 percent of his earnings to charity, he gives the man 100 dollars. What category does the second man fall under? Does he fall under giving after being asked? Or does he fall under giving begrudgingly? Who did the better deed? Doesn’t it seem that the first man does the better deed even if he gives less? You might say this because the second man seems to be annoyed and doesn’t really care about the man or his story. In this way I think that life does not always fit neatly into Rambam’s ladder.
Here is another difficult to categorize situation, in this case a true one. My family and I adopted a Sri Lankan girl named Achala through Child Reach. I do not know what category this falls under either. Is it giving before being asked, or when neither party knows the other’s identity? I think that there should be some more steps.
Now I will talk about the eight steps in detail. The most righteous way to give tzedakah is to enable the recipient to become self-reliant. Here is a story that is an example of this step. It was Sukkot and Rabbi Mordechai had been saving up for a long time to buy a perfect etrog; etrogs were not cheap. So Mordechai goes out to town to buy his etrog but on his way he runs into a man who was crying and he asked why. The man explained how he got into an accident and his horse died. The man asked how he was supposed to make a living now. The Rabbi stood sad next to the man. He was unsure whether he should get an etrog for Sukkot or whether to do tzedakah (charity); both are commandments from G-d. So Rabbi Mordechai made a decision and gave every single penny to the man. The Rabbi told the man to buy a new horse. When going home the Rabbi felt good that he was able to help someone. When Mordechai got home the people asked to see the etrog and he told them the story. At first the others were disappointed but then they understood.
The second most righteous way to give is when neither party knows the other’s identity. When I was about 9 years old I went on a trip to Italy. In Italy there were many poor people on the street. I felt very sad for them. I made a deal with my parents that they would give me a certain amount of money each day. And whenever I saw a homeless person on the street I would give them some money. As the trip went on I got sadder and sadder as I saw more homeless people on the street. So one day I asked my mom what else I could do when I got home to help homeless people. My mom and I talked and we realized I could work at a soup kitchen when I got home. When we got home it turned out that one of our neighbors worked at Elijah’s Promise. So my mom and I volunteered at Elijah’s Promise every Saturday until the summer. We would go and set up the food and cook. We never saw the people who ate the food and they never saw us, so it would fall under the category of neither party knows the other.
The third most righteous form of tzedakah is giving when you know the recipient’s identity but the recipient does not know your identity. A man named Yidel dug clay for a living, and brought it home to sell to builders who used it for bricks. One day his horse that he used to ride there to haul the clay got sick and died while they were going to work. Two of Yidel’s neighbors saw him carrying all the clay on his back and wondered why he hadn’t bought another horse. Later that day they asked one of Yidel’s friends about this. They said Yidel didn’t have enough money. So the two friends went around collecting money for Yidel and got a decent amount. They went to Yidel and offered him the money. And to their surprise he turned it down. He said that he didn’t take charity. His two friends told the Rabbi the story. The rabbi listened and stayed up all night to think of an idea and figured out what to do. The next day the Rabbi dressed up as a twig porter and left the money in the middle of some twigs and left them at Yidel’s door. Yidel heard a noise and went to the door and saw a bundle of twigs. He decided to take them inside and hold onto them until he found the owner. But then a bag of gold coins spilled out. Yidel thought that he couldn’t keep the money in his house so he decided to ask the Rabbi what to do. The Rabbi told him to keep the money because it was a token from G-d. Yidel was excited and used it to buy a new horse and even had enough to buy a machine that converted clay to bricks. He hired poor people to work at his factory and always tried to help others.
The fourth most righteous step is giving when you do not know the recipient’s identity but the recipient knows yours. There are many famous and rich people who make their own foundations, which give to the poor. For example Bill Gates, one of the richest people, has created the Gates Foundation. The people who receive the money know that it is from the Gates Foundation. However Bill Gates often does not know who receives it.
Here is an example of the fifth highest form of tzedakah, which is giving before being asked. When I was in fifth grade a friend and I chose to tutor a few third grade students. We chose to do this without anyone asking. We talked to our third grade teacher and she thought it would be a good idea. It falls under the category giving before being asked.
The next step of tzedakah is giving after being asked. There are many possible examples of this. For instance someone might be running to raise money for cancer and he or she could ask you to sponsor them, or people could come to your house and ask for a donation to a charity, or you could get a letter in the mail asking for some money and you could give to them. I think this step is very interesting. It is slightly confusing to tell whether these are very good deeds or not. You can think about it in a few different ways, you can think that the person is not doing such a good deed because someone has to ask or convince them to give the money. But do you think that people with cancer who benefit from this money care that the runner had to ask to get sponsored, as long as they got the money.
The next step down is giving less than you should, but giving it cheerfully. Although slightly embarrassing a prime example of that is the U.S.A. We have more billionaires than any other country, yet in 2002 9.2 percent of the total population were officially considered poor. In 1992, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development decided to target to give a mere 0.7 percent of the domestic gross to overseas help. We were not able to do this. All the nations failed to do this and we were the lowest, percentage-wise.
The lowest step of the ladder is giving begrudgingly. A good example of this is would be if a poor person approaches you on a street and asks you for money. You really do not like giving to the poor and this person is starting to annoy you. You tell them to stop asking and go away. The person starts to cry and begs you for a little bit of change. You are getting tired and really want to leave, so you give them a buck and walk away.
Although I think that Rambam’s ladder was a great idea, the fault that I find with it, is that it is too limiting. For me, I disagree with the ranking of the second highest form of tzedakah, which is giving when neither party knows the other’s identity. When neither party knows the other there is no shame for accepting. But for me when I give I love the experience of meeting the person I give to. I understand that it is not about how I would feel but how the receiver feels. I think that some times both people, the giver and the receiver benefit. The giver, because they get to feel good and be able to see the people they helped. The receiver may benefit because if they think that everything is hopeless and no one cares about them and then this person comes and helps them out. They would then feel that some one cares about them or that they have a friend. Some other people will give a check and not care where it goes or be willing to put themselves out.
As a final example of everything I wrote about, I will be going to Peru this summer with my family. We will be doing community service in a small, poor town called Villa El Salvador. I will be working with poor kids about my age and younger teaching English, sports, and drama.
To end my speech I will give you a quote by Maimonides:
We should obscure the laws of charity more carefully even than all the other commandments. Charity (tzedakah) is the mark of the righteous ones of the children of Abraham our father. One does not become impoverished as a result of practicing charity. No harm or evil can be its outcome. He who has compassion on others is deserving of compassion. As to the merciless one, who knows no pity, his Jewish extraction may be considered doubtful, because cruelty is usually characteristic of pagans.