The most famous High Holyday prayer teaches that tzedakah transforms our lives. Tzedakah is usually translated as ‘charity’, but that’s not what the term means. It’s a form of the word tzedek, ‘righteousness’. Tzedakah is a commitment to economic and social justice.
We are taught to love God ‘bechol me’odecha – with all your might’. The rabbis understand this as meaning ‘all your money and possessions’.
We are judged for who we are, not for what we have. But what we do with what we have is an acute indication of who we are. There are few texts as astute as the opening lines of this Mishnah:
There are four attitudes [to possessions]. Someone who says ‘What’s mine is mine and what’s your is yours’ is an average person. However, some say it’s the attitude of Sodom. (Avot 5:13)
‘What’s mine is mine’ sounds reasonable enough. Why should anyone else have the right to take what’s ours, especially if we also respect their rights to what justly belongs to them? This is surely the basis of any law-abiding society.
Why then do ‘some say it’s like Sodom’, the wealthy city whose elders forbade sharing food with strangers, preferring to let them die of hunger in the street? The issue is that ‘what’s mine is mine’ sounds too much like: ‘This is my lot and I deserve it; that’s your lot and you deserve it. You get on with your life, and I’ll get on with mine. I have no obligation to care.’
None of us is that hard-hearted. We don’t just walk past every homeless person. We give charity. But I sometimes worry if I’m just doing ‘conscience money’.
Judaism sees wealth as a double gift: divine blessing, and sacred trust. We are at liberty to enjoy what we have; indeed, we should, and thank God for it. Ultimately, though, we are the trustees, not the final possessors, of what we ‘own’. Otherwise, it ‘owns’ us.
Tzedakah recalls us to our responsibilities to those in our communities and societies whose ‘mine’ is a fraction of ours. It’s often because of luck: where they were born, when they were born; what illness or mental distress they suffered; when their parent died who had hoped to eke out enough to give the children an education.
In our day there is a further issue. Few of us avoid the temptations of ‘retail therapy’ (my weaknesses: books and garden centres). Having everything on line makes it worse.
Bluntly, what trail of oppression, cruelty, waste and environmental destruction am I bringing into my house inside my shopping bags? These are urgent questions, because one day our children will ask why their elders were so careless about their descendants’ future:
Do I need those plastic bags and boxes which may go from my dustbin into the oceans? Must I buy clothes I may only wear twice? (I recently heard from an expert: ‘The clothing industry can’t recycle its way out of its responsibility to the earth’.) Do I need so much meat and dairy when I know a caged animal suffers? Who is paying the true cost of my cheap food?
These concerns scarcely feature among the sins we confess on Yom Kippur. That’s why they are so dangerous, because the societies we live in often don’t regard them as wrong.
On Yom Kippur we are judged for who we are. Our footprint on the earth is part of us. So too is what we give. In truth, who we are has much more to do with what we give than with what we retain.