Righteousness in Action – Tzedakah

December 3, 2013

by: Cheryl Hauer, International Development Director

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For many Christians, however, righteousness can be hard to define. It might mean honesty, fairness or purity. It could refer to being Christ-like, or living in a constant state of goodness. For many, the focus is on what you believe and how you think, two keys to determining your “level of righteousness.” But, for the Jewish people, the focus is placed much more firmly on what you do, and tzedakah has come to refer to caring for the poor, an action that reveals both what you believe and how you think.

Righteousness and Justice

One of the earliest references to tzedakah in the Bible is found in Genesis 18:19. Here, the Lord speaks of His relationship with Abraham, a man whose faithfulness was credited to him as tzedakah. The Lord reveals that He has chosen Abraham so that his children and his household after him might learn to keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice.

Centuries later, the Lord reminds His people through the prophet Micah of their need to be found righteous.

“‘O My people, remember now what Balak king of Moab counseled, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him, from Acacia Grove to Gilgal, that you may know the righteousness of the Lord.’ With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:5–8)

In Judaism, these verses are at the heart of tzedakah. Mercy, justice and righteousness are inextricably linked and find their genesis in the command: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The Jewish people were set apart from all the nations of the earth to reveal the character of God. Their behavior, therefore, had to reflect His; their treatment of others should mirror His treatment of them; His extravagant love, forgiveness and constant care should be the hallmarks of their relationships with one another. Every human being, even the neediest among them, was created in the image of God and therefore has the right to receive that which is needed to live. A righteous community, then, can only truly reflect the character of their all-loving Creator by making sure that justice is done through meeting the needs of their poor. And great blessing awaits both the giver and the receiver. Tzedakah has become such a central tenet of Judaism that every city worldwide that has a Jewish community is required by Jewish law to have a charity fund. Through it, the needy in the community are cared for and are looked upon with consideration and respect. Since giving is a commandment, receiving must be as well.

The Poor among Us

Caring for the needy then becomes different than charity. Generosity prompted by love and pity is certainly something one would expect from the people of God. But tzedakah is something else. It is not an option; it is a commandment. Yeshua spoke of this concept in Matthew 6:19–24. Here His followers are encouraged to lay up treasures in heaven by being generous. The phrase “evil eye” which results in darkness found in verse 23 is a Hebrew idiom for one who is stingy with his money. One with a good eye recognizes his social responsibility to care for the needy and gives freely.

Yeshua speaks of the poor again in Matthew 26:11 (Mark 14:7, John 12:8), where He quotes Deuteronomy 15:11, “The poor you will always have with you…” However, a few verses earlier, God proclaims, “…when there may be no poor among you” (v. 4). This may seem like a contradiction, but in fact is a declaration of generosity. God explains that He will greatly bless His people in the Land and though there will always be those who are in need, His people are to share the wealth and bring further blessing on the entire community.

Giving with Great Joy

Finally, all this giving is to be done with great joy. The sages have taught, “One needs to give tzedakah with a happy face, with joy and with the goodness of his heart; moreover he should empathize with the poor person in his suffering, recognizing that he is only able to give because God has given to him. And if he gives with an angry and scornful face, he loses his merit.”

We are, after all, only custodians of the resources that our compassionate, heavenly Father has given us, the sages say. The person who approaches us for help is therefore a divine messenger, sent to remind us of our purpose for being: to reflect the character of our generous God by loving, giving and serving one another.

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