A few weeks ago, Mark Neuhof, the financial secretary of our shul, shared with me the following email exchange that he had with Aviva Brukner, a congregant in our shul.
Mark: Hi Aviva. I received a $100 check that notes the Rabbi’s Special Charity. Is this for a specific appeal or cause? Does it go to the shul or to the Rabbi for something?
Aviva: It’s just tzedakah (my daughter’s maaser money) that she wants to give to the rabbi for his tzedakah fund.
Mark: Your daughter? Forgive me for asking – how old is she?
Aviva: No problem, she’s 8… it’s actually half from her and we told her we would give the same from us… either way, it should go into the rabbi’s tzedakah fund that he uses for helping less fortunate community members (or whatever he does with it)… thanks
Mark: Wow! You should be very proud of Kayla, but I’m proud to know such model parents! Tizku le’mitzvot!
Kayla’s father, Ben, told me that Kayla received birthday money enough to buy an iPad but she decided to set aside maaser money for tzedakah so she only bought a used iPad instead of a new iPad.
In the seventh chapter of the laws of charity, the Rambam writes that there is both a positive mitzvah to give charity, based on the verse, “Pato’ach tiftach et yadcha lo” – “you shall certainly open your hand to him” (Devarim 15:5) and a negative mitzvah of “lo t’ametz et levavcha v’lo tikpotz et yadcha mai’achicha ha’evyon” – “Do not harden your heart or close your hand against your brother, the poor person” (Devarim 15:7).
I understand the function of the negative mitzvah of tzedakah. If a poor person approaches you, you should not turn him away. You must help him. The negative mitzvah of tzedakah is a reactive mitzvah. But how should we understand the positive mitzvah of tzedakah, which is a proactive mitzvah? First of all, we can argue that we are commanded to anticipate the needs of the recipient. Even if a poor person doesn’t approach us, either because he is unaware that we have the means to help him or because he is too embarrassed to approach us, there is a positive mitzvah to be proactive and try to find those who need help even though they don’t approach us.
However, the proactive mitzvah of tzedakah can serve a second function. It can be transformative. It can change the personality of the donor into a different individual. It is not merely to help the recipient, but it actually helps the donor. Perhaps this is why the Rambam writes that even someone who is on welfare must give a minimum of 1/3 of a shekel annually – because everyone must do his or her part, no matter how poor, to transform himself or herself into a donor, into a giver, into a ba’al chesed. We only become a ba’al chesed if we actually engage in acts of chesed proactively. As such, it was so wonderful for me to read about an eight year old in our community who truly understands the value of tzedaka and chesed and who has already proven herself to be a ba’alat chesed. Kayla, we are very proud of you!