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Tsedoke and Alyssa’s Subway Ride

February 23, 2013

by Lawrence Bush

A Jewish addendum to Alyssa Goldstein's "An Open Letter to Two Women on the Subway" — which is, in essence, an exposition on tsedoke without speaking the word.

When I was a kid and a few charities came knocking on the door (this was before the era of NGOs and endless requests for money through the mail), my father always refused to give, based on his socialist belief that it was the government's responsibility, i.e., the collective's responsibility, not the individual's responsibility, to alleviate poverty.

The Jewish tradition teaches that it's both.

"The poor person does more for the householder [the one who gives] than the householder does for the poor person," teaches Rabbi Yehoshua in the Leviticus Rabbah 34: 8. How so? We have all experienced the feeling — or should I say the loss of feeling? — that happens when we deny tsedoke to an outstretched hand. There is an emotional shut-down, a mental irritability and judgmentalness, even a physical numbness, which shroud us as we separate from the Other.

We've all experienced, as well, the spirituality of giving: the pulse of generosity, of connecting to connection; the humbling recognition of the humanity that we share with that Other, and the bittersweet feeling of virtue mixed with helplessness at not being able to do more.

So in a tsedoke transaction, the householder gains a sense of humanity, while the poor person gets a dollar.

No wonder the Book of Proverbs tells us that "tsedoke saves from death." While poverty is a kind of death — burying people in a coffin of hardship and invisibility — Proverbs is speaking not of the recipients of tsedoke, but of the solicitors and funders when it says, “tsedoke saves from death.” It is the solicitors and funders who gain life by releasing their hearts from that clench of selfishness and self-involvement; by participating in a community of mutual responsibility; by taking responsibility for the reconstruction of our world.

In truth, if Jewish spirituality has any wide-open door of access at all, tsedoke is it: “Tsedoke,” says the Talmud (Bava Batra 9a), “equals all the other commandments.” And no other commandment is more ubiquitous in Jewish life today. Think about it: Tsedoke is the Jewish community’s main source of influence, cohesion, and reputation. It is an expression of communal identity and idealism that is as widespread and binding as Holocaust remembrance, support for Israel, or any form of religious observance. This is affirmed in the classic joke about the Jewish couple who are shipwrecked on an island after their vacation cruise ship goes down. In a burst of inspiration, she asks, “Did we make good yet on our pledge to the Jewish Federation?” When he tells her that he hasn’t yet sent the check, she replies, “We’re as good as saved!”

As a secular Jew, there is very little in the halokhe (Jewish law) that I've internalized. Yet the fundamental Jewish idea that my money is not really mine — that "the earth is the Lord's, and all of its fruits," as Psalm 24 puts it, i.e. that wealth is a collective product — is, to my mind, an unarguable reality principle. Tsedoke, then, is a deed of justice, of synchronizing ourselves with the reality of life. We redistribute our wealth, without going crazy or impoverishing ourselves, in order to reflect the economic reality principles of wealth and human interconnection. I try to be disciplined about it, and I am grateful to the Jewish tradition for contradicting my father's teaching.