The giving season is now upon us. Most expect to both give and receive gifts during this time of year. But wait. What about first giving thanks -- Thanksgiving? Before we rush off to purchase the latest hot item on the box stores’ shelves, let’s stop to appreciate and acknowledge this sweetest of times, a time of National Thanksgiving -- a time when we can express our collective appreciation for the gifts and blessings that are already ours.
The psalmist, King David, wrote, “It is good to give thanks onto the Lord. To proclaim G-d’s steadfast love at daybreak and G-d’s faithfulness each night.”
While it is true that it is a great idea to set aside one day each year to specifically acknowledge our blessings, how much better might it be if we set aside some portion of each day to express our gratitude for all that we are privileged to enjoy? Gratitude is fertile ground in which compassion, charity, perspective and even happiness can grow.
In this Land of Plenty, there are so many who are in need, are wanting and go without. Our mailboxes will soon be filled with a host of charitable solicitations. The need is great; the causes many. Those of us who can, should offer what we can. It is the right and honorable thing to do.
But how can you decide among all those worthy causes, which ones to support? Some may feel so paralyzed by the onslaught or overwhelmed by the vast need, that they do nothing. But I would like to suggest that we can all offer a little bit of ourselves, for others, not just at this time of year, but throughout the year.
In the Jewish tradition, the word for charity is expressed as tzedakah. This is not merely an act of kindness towards those less fortunate than one’s self, but based on the idea that tzedakah, from the Hebrew root tzedek or justice is a righteous deed, the honorable and just action.
Rabbi Moses Maimonides, the 12th century sage who was admired throughout the ancient world, crafted a guide for giving gifts or tzedakah to those less fortunate than us. Maimonides, also known as the Rambam, enumerated eight different ways of giving tzedakah. The highest level, or best way to help another person, would be by helping that person find a job, or actually entering into some sort of partnership with that person.
According to Maimonides, the next best way of doing what is right and just, is through giving a charitable donation to someone where the person who gives doesn’t know who will receive the gift and the one who receives the money does not know who has given it. No need for wall plaques, thanks or certificates here. To do good is its own reward.
As we move down the rungs of the tzedakah ladder, the next best way of giving is where the person who gives knows who will be receiving his/her donation, but the person who receives the tzedakah doesn’t know who gave it. In this way, the receiver need not feel beholden in any way to the giver.
The next best case would be a person who gives money directly to a person in need before the person has to ask for it. Surely a more honorable and less shame-inducing way to give.
Further down the rungs, we come to those who give directly to a person in need, but only after having been asked.
Below this is a person who gives directly to the poor, but gives less than he or she is able, all the while giving the tzedakah cheerfully.
On the lowest rung, we meet a person who gives tzedakah, but grudgingly and with a scowl.
So there you have it. Maimonides’ Eight Rungs of Giving to the Poor. In truth, giving charity, no matter how it is given, is a mitzvah or good deed. Still, it is worth our while to stop and consider how and why we are contributing to the greater good not only at this special time of year, but throughout the year.
Giving to others makes one’s heart glad. The giver truly receives a blessing in return for his or her kind deed. Even those who feel they don’t have much to give, or are in need themselves, can offer up something of value to another. Compassion knows no limits or bounds.
May this season inspire us to a deeper, more profound sense of appreciation for all we have. May our acts of caring and compassion reach out to many and may every day become a day of Thanksgiving.
Janet Tatz, M.Ed., is the Jewish educator at Intermountain Children’s Home and the lay leader of the Helena Jewish community.