Very often, Rosh Hashana comes along and I find myself thinking: How did the month of Elul come and go so quickly – I feel that I did not utilize my time adequately to prepare myself to stand before HaKadosh Baruch Hu on Yom haDin?
In that vein, as we are m’varchin haChodesh this coming Shabbat for the month of Elul, I would like to get a head start by focusing on a central phrase in the Yamim Noraim liturgy.
The climax of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer is the final statement which we declare out loud together:
“וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רעַ הַגְּזֵרָה “
“Repentance, prayer and charity avert the evil decree.”
The Rambam, Maimonides, in his Moreh Nevuchim, Guide to the Perplexed, 3:53, explains: הביטוי צדקה גזור מן צדק. The word tzedakah comes from the root tzedek, which means justice.
The Rambam further explains that the essence of this concept is granting to everyone that to which they have right or giving every being that which corresponds to their merits.
Tzedakah therefore, according to the Rambam, is generally considered charity in the sense of providing for the basic needs of one who is lacking financially, according to what is due to them.
Tzedakah is often connected to a related concept, that of chesed, or gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness. Chesed can generally be described as giving in excess what is required. That is, doing something for someone to whom one has no obligation or doing something for someone one who deserves it, but in a greater measure than is warranted.
Thus, the contrast between tzedakah and chesed is that tzedakah is an act of beneficence toward another person who deserves or merits what is given to them and when the giver has no obligation to them. With chesed, the giver also does not have an obligation to the individual to which she gives, but that individual receives in excess of their merit.
The Rabbis compared these two concepts in the Gemara (Sukkah 49b)
בשלשה דברים גדולה גמילות חסדים יותר מן הצדקה, צדקה – בממונו, גמילות חסדים – בין בגופו בין בממונו. צדקה – לעניים, גמילות חסדים – בין לעניים בין לעשירים. צדקה – לחיים, גמילות חסדים – בין לחיים בין למתים.
Acts of chesed are greater that tzedakah in three ways: tzedakah is accomplished with one’s money, chesed is accomplished through money or through other actions. Tzedakah is for the poor whereas chesed can be for the poor or for the wealthy. Tzedakah is only for the living whereas chesed can be for the living or for those who have died.
If this is the case that chesed is a much deeper and more comprehensive act of good, why is it that we declare:
וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רעַ הַגְּזֵרָה?
Why don’t we say together:
וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּחֶסֶד מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רעַ הַגְּזֵרָה?
One way to explain the choice of tzedakah is based on the ideas of Rav Yosef Baer Soloveitchik who explains that tzedakah is an integral part of the teshuva (repentance), process. Although the Gemara (Rosh HaShanah 16b) derives this principle from a verse in Psalms, the Rav chooses to refer back to the chet ha-eigel, the sin of the golden calf. Part of the teshuva process for the Jewish people was their monetary contribution to the mishkan, the tabernacle. In response to their sin, B’nei Yisrael began building the sanctuary which would be the focal point of their connection with God. They were required to donate to this project. The Rav further explains the connection between teshuva and tzedakah by noting the there is an element of selfishness in transgression. Some form of personal benefit has been given precedence over religious and social principles.
The Torah describes the half shekel which everyone was obligated to donate to the mishkan as a kofer, a ransom. It is as if to say that one who has sinned is held captive and must be redeemed through giving.
Tzedakah therefore, is a means of demonstrating compassion, responsibility, and a willingness to share. For this reason, forgiveness from God can only be obtained when tzedakah accompanies the teshuva process.
Following this understanding of the connection of tzedakah to teshuva, we can offer another understanding as to why the High Holiday liturgy emphasizes tzedakah as opposed to chesed. The monetary obligations of tzedakah are limited and are directed soley to the poor. The halachah has a rich body of laws outlining the amounts of tzedakah one is required to give in response to different situations.
The legal duties of one’s personal involvement in gemilut chessadim are without restrictions. The process of teshuva, of return, would be that much more difficult if part of that process was a mitzvah, a mandate, which was in effect at all times, to all people and in all situations.
Tzedakah, as I mentioned above, is intimately bound to teshuva and can be an expression of our commitment to return. It is a mitzvah in and of itself which is at the foundation of a Jewish community. The community, as well as the indivudual, has a responsibility to those in need. The giving of tzedakah is considered a fundamental part of being human such that even one who receives tzedakah due to their need still is required to give tzedakah themselves.
The Maharal, Rav Yehuda Louwe, in his work Nitivot Olam, expands upon the difference between tzedakah and gemilut chesed. Tzedakah is judged by the recipient. The magnitude of the need will determine the degree of assistance to alleviate the need. Chesed on the other hand, is to be judged by the giver — the quality of caring that a person is capable of will determine the nature and degree of the remedy.
Tzedakah is sparked by the demands of compassion. One cannot bear to see a person suffering, so one is compelled by a sense of sympathy to help the other. If that present need did not exist, there would be no compassion necessary and no charity given.
Chesed requires a broader, more sensitive heart and a generosity of spirit to be integrated into one’s personality. Chesed then, will not be a reaction forthcoming only in response to sadness. It will be an ever-present quality which will anticipate needs, understand other’s limitations, search for solutions and initiate acts of benevolence, even when unstated or un-noticed by the recipient.
This year will present financial challenges for many. Please keep these individuals, families and communities in mind even though we all may feel the burden of our country’s economic difficulites. There are many in need of tzedakah. However, help can also come in the form of chesed. Assistance need not only be financial, it can come in the form of helping people save money, donating one’s time and energy and sharing one’s resources.
Next week we will mark the beginning of the month of Elul and with it, the formal beginning of our spiritual preparations for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If our hearts and eyes are open we will see the many opportunities for tzedakah and chesed before us. Through our actions may we merit compassion from the One who is compassionate. Wishing us all a productive and meaningful chodesh Elul.