The Sceptic Blog

Random thoughts of a random chappy

Haiti – Giving tzedokoh funds to disaster relief

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1.  Amidst the appalling disaster and devastation of the Haiti earthquake, it is at least good to know that the reaction of so many people around the world has been “what can we do to help?”.

2.  And it is also good to know that the Jewish community is not backward in coming forward. Israel had its team of medics standing by ready to join the relief efforts within hours of the news hitting the media.  And Jews around the world are joining others in contributing funds to the relief campaigns.

3.  The issue of using tzedokoh funds for humanitarian disaster relief is really rather simple, but I discuss it here because I have received reports of at least one person who should know better – being responsible for children’s spiritual development – talking nonsense.

4.  There are two main talmudic principles involved.

5.  First, the allocation of limited resources is that “the poor of your city come before the poor of other places”.  That applies at all levels, so my family come first, my local community comes next, and so on outwards.

6.  The rabbis record that we give to non-Jewish charities as well as to Jewish charities because of “darchei sholom” – the ways of peace – and there is considerable discussion as to what precisely this means.

7.  Commonsense makes it clear that the first principle does not and could not mean “do not give a penny to another city until your city has everything it could possibly wish for”, because on that basis nobody would ever get beyond their own immediate family in giving tzedokoh.  What it does mean is that in deciding how to divide whatever I am giving to charitable purposes overall, I give relatively more to those for whom I am more responsible by virtue of proximity and expectation, and less to those for whom I am less responsible.

8.  As to the second principle, what is required by darchei sholom has changed in the last few decades in a number of ways.  When we lived in small isolated villages in Poland, our responsibilities were limited by our knowledge.  Famines in Africa were thought of, if at all, as remote events affecting people of whom we knew little or nothing.  Nowadays, almost every Jew in this country sees the world news in a newspaper of some kind or on the television or hears it on the radio.  Almost every Jew will at some point last week have seen the faces of people wounded by the earthquake, and most will have heard their cries.

9.  Whether one sees the principle of darchei sholom as being primarily about our community’s international reputation or about our own self-respect and spiritual direction, it is simply impossible that the descendants of our father Abraham could see the faces of the injured and hear the cries of the suffering and not be moved to wish – almost to need – to be associated in some small way in the efforts to relieve their suffering.

10.  And we can rest assured that when we give money to the disaster relief funds we are following the example of sensitivity set by the gedolei Torah over the years – the “Tzaddik in Our Time” Reb Aryeh Levine, for example, gave money to African famine relief: although immersed in the Old City with very limited opportunity for finding out about events in the wider world, the cries of the famine-stricken somehow found their way to his ears with the inevitable result.

11.  Put another way, the application of the principles of “your city first” and “darchei sholom” has been affected by the shrinking of the world: my brother in Africa is no longer a remote concept, it is an actual face that I have seen.  Individuals will make their own decisions about the allocation of their own resources.  Some may prefer not to give their basic ma’aser tithes to humanitarian disasters of this kind, but to add to their ma’aser money for this purpose.  Whatever each person’s individual decision, we can feel closest to our father Abraham at moments like this when we are following his lead in serving God by caring for mankind.

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Written by Daniel Greenberg

January 16, 2010 at 10:30 pm

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