A Guide to Teshuvah: Injustice
Tsedakah is almost always explained as ‘charity’. But the root of the word is tsedek, righteousness, so a better translation might be ‘social justice’: we give tzedakah because of our obligation to social justice. It is a mitzvah, a duty incumbent upon all of us according to our means.
The rabbis who selected the prophetic readings for the festivals gave pride of place to Isaiah’s impassionate appeal for social justice, determining that it should be read every Yom Kippur morning throughout all generations:
If you want to know My ways, to be a nation which practices justice…
share your bread with the hungry, give the oppressed poor shelter; when you see someone naked give them clothes, don’t hide yourself from your own flesh.
We are not allowed to ‘hide ourselves away,’ to pretend we haven’t seen We have a Torah-enjoined collective responsibility to notice, to make ourselves aware and to respond. We are commanded to care for those going through bad times, who can’t make ends meet, who can’t both heat their homes and feed their children, or who, forced to flee famine and war, become refugees in a strange land. ‘Open your hand, open it,’ the Torah insists, using the doubled, emphatic, absolute form of the verb.
‘I have never heard of a Jewish community which doesn’t have a fund to help those in need,’ wrote Maimonides in response to an appeal for money to redeem hostages. His Eight Degrees of Tsedakah are famous, beginning with enabling others to find employment and stressing the need to give with a generous eye and without causing humiliation.
The Torah warns that ‘the poor will never cease out of the land,’ acknowledging that there will always be inequality and need. But the degree of social injustice across most of the world, and in this country, today is surely wrong. I wonder what Jonah would say if God were to send him not to Nineveh but to some of the wealthier capital cities of the 21st century, and whether we would listen.
Judaism teaches that we are not only held accountable for our actions as individuals but judged as societies for the degree of justice or injustice we collectively practice. Almost all our confessional prayers are in the plural: we are collectively responsible.
The Talmud relates how the prophet Elijah stopped visiting a pious rabbi because he had come to live in a gated settlement through the thick walls of which the cry of the poor could no longer be heard.
We are commanded and held accountable for our response.