Our Last Chance for Tzedakah

The parshah for Yom Kippur doesn’t really explain in Leviticus 16:29-31 what it means by its instructions for us to “afflict” our souls on this Shabbat Shabbaton. (שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן הִיא לָכֶם וְעִנִּיתֶם אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם--חֻקַּת עוֹלָם.) Yet over the many generations, afflicting our souls has come to include fasting. So what is the reason for purposely denying ourselves basic nourishment? Is it to remind ourselves what it is like to be so poor that we lack even food? Is it an echo of some ancient ascetic lifestyle?
The haftarah for Yom Kippur in Isaiah 58:5 gives us a hint: “Is such the fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul?” (הֲכָזֶה יִהְיֶה צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ--יוֹם עַנּוֹת אָדָם נַפְשׁוֹ) “Will you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to HaShem?” (הֲלָזֶה תִּקְרָא-צוֹם וְיוֹם רָצוֹן לַיהוָה) In contrast, verses 6 and 7 reveal the acceptable fast as one where we give our bread to the hungry, bring the poor home, and clothe the naked. (הֲלוֹא זֶה צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ... פָרֹס לָרָעֵב לַחְמֶךָ וַעֲנִיִּים מְרוּדִים תָּבִיא בָיִת כִּי-תִרְאֶה עָרֹם וְכִסִּיתוֹ)
On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Many who are poor today were rich last year. Many who are rich today will be poor next year. We today who are surrounded by so many blessings may find ourselves among the poor asking for charity in the near future. So we must treat the poor today as we would want them to treat us if our fortunes were exchanged. We must take tzedakah seriously because true compassion for the poor is a part of teshuva during the Yamim Noraim
Helping the poor figures prominently in the Torah. Deuteronomy 26:12 speaks of regularly setting aside the tithe for the Levite, stranger, fatherless, and widow. (שְׁנַת הַמַּעֲשֵׂר וְנָתַתָּה לַלֵּוִי לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה) Just before Yom HaTeruah and Yom Kippur are mentioned in Leviticus 23:24-27, ancient Israeli farmers were told in verse 22 to purposely leave some crops in their fields for the poor. (לֹא-תְכַלֶּה פְּאַת שָׂדְךָ בְּקֻצְרֶךָ וְלֶקֶט קְצִירְךָ... לֶעָנִי תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָם)
An Israeli field hospital was the first to arrive after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. We dispatched water-purification experts to Japan after the 2011 tsunami. Israeli trauma experts were sent to Boston after the marathon bombings. The IDF’s Medical Corp set up a field hospital close to the Syrian border to treat the most seriously injured victims of the civil war, both sides of which are declared enemies of Israel. Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petah Tikva in 2013 even treated Ismail Haniyeh’s granddaughter after thousands of rockets had been fired by his terror organization at Israeli civilians.
It may come as a surprise, however, that Israeli society as a whole does not rank so well as givers of charity. According to the November 2014 World Giving Index (WGI), the U.S. and Myanmar tied for first place in giving charity, whereas Israel ranked at No. 32 with Mongolia. Shockingly, despite its horrifying civil war, Syria came in ahead of Israel at No. 30. The WGI ranks 130 countries according to their charitableness and is based on three questions asked by the Gallup World Poll concerning helping strangers, making donations, and volunteering for an organization during the previous month.
Of all people, we understand what it means to be persecuted strangers and refugees. We can do more to mobilize help on behalf of all refugees. Over 350,000 migrants and refugees entered Europe between January and August of this year. Yet the overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees are still in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Fortunately, several Israeli organizations have been responding for several months to the humanitarian tragedy unfolding across the Middle East and Europe.
We all have our favorite Jewish and Israeli causes through which we can help the refugees. Israeli NGO IsraAid, for example, has launched a campaign calling for baby carriers and slings for the many thousands who are still on the move with very small children. The World Jewish Relief, originally founded to bring Jewish refugee children to England on the famous Kindertransports, is providing shelter, blankets and hygiene kits to vulnerable groups such as mothers with newborns.
The 130-year-old Jewish immigrant agency HIAS has hundreds of staff on the ground in 12 countries providing refugees with legal assistance, trauma counseling, and training in sustainable livelihoods. Medical doctors and social therapists are being called on to donate their expertise. HIAS also is working to get thousands of synagogues involved in raising awareness on behalf of the migrant situation.
There are many hundreds of credible charities through which we can volunteer and donate. Those involved in social media can do a lot by bringing attention to the plight of refugees. In addition, we all have email lists of friends and acquaintances whom we can try to mobilize, including our local synagogues.
The 9th of Tishrei is a special time for tzedakah because it’s our last chance to remember the poor prior to the Day of Atonement when our fates are sealed for the coming year. At the very least, let us take the money that normally would be spent on a day’s food and put it to good use by helping others. Isaiah 58:10 says that if we draw out our soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul, then shall our light rise in darkness. (וְתָפֵק לָרָעֵב נַפְשֶׁךָ וְנֶפֶשׁ נַעֲנָה תַּשְׂבִּיעַ וְזָרַח בַּחֹשֶׁךְ אוֹרֶךָ.)
Fasting certainly is the one part of Yom Kippur that is so impossible to ignore. Yet the haftarah stipulates that the fasting must be of a special character. It is not just for afflicting one’s soul in hope of atonement but should include giving our food to the hungry, providing housing to the homeless, and clothing the naked. So as we give our last tzedakah before Yom Kippur, let us remember the poor in our midst and around the world.
Yoeli's Mandate: Leave your mark, make a difference for the good, and do your part to make sure that they never again devour Jacob or make his habitation waste.
You may email Eli Kaufman at [email protected]