Maot Chitim (literally money for wheat) is given before Passover to the less fortunate members of the community to enable every Jew to celebrate the Holiday of Freedom properly along with the rest of his people.
Giving tzedakah is an obligation based on biblical law, not a voluntary act determined by one’s kindness or pity.
It says in the Torah, “If there be a needy person among you, you shall not harden your heart not shut your hand and lend him enough for what he needs. You shall surely give him because for this the Lord your G-d will bless you in all your work and in all you set your hand to do.”
Giving Tzedakah is not viewed as an expression of individual goodness or good will but rather as a response to an obligation based on biblical imperatives and the belief that all needy human beings deserve help. This does not mean that Jewish tradition does not recognize the intrinsic value of tzedakah to the donor as well as to the recipient.
Tzedakah was never considered an onerous duty or a tax; it is a privilege, a way of expressing dignity, affirming self-respect, participating in an activity that defines a mensch. Doing good feels good.
Giving Tzedakah is one of the greatest of all mitzvoth for it is truly joining with G-d in working toward the sustenance and preservation of our world and the dignity of each human being.
The Talmud concludes that charity is equal in importance to all the other commandments. Tzedakah is literally justice or righteousness.
The performance of every mitzvah, every religious commandment, is prefaced with a blessing. Why, the Rabbis ask, is there no blessing preceding the giving of charity? Because, they answer, that would delay helping a human being in need with words directed to G-d. G-d can wait, a poor person can’t.
Finally, Tzedakah does not mean charity, it means righteousness. We give because it is simply the right thing to do. The idea exists strongly in Judaism that the more we give financially and of ourselves to G-d, the religious institutions that serve us, and other charitable organizations the more will flow back to us.
Purim begins this year on Saturday evening, March 15, 2014, and continues through Sunday night, March 16. Chabad.org provides a brief step-by-step guide to Purim observance, including links to additional Purim resources.
The experience of the exodus from Egypt, Yeziat Mitzrayim, which we commemorate on Passover, is indelibly marked in the collective consciousness of the Jewish nation. It is this notion — of having been slaves to the Egyptians — that plays such a profound role in defining the moral and ethical demands that the Torah places on us. Having known the experience of oppression, we are commanded to take that to heart, lest we turn to oppress our fellow human beings. Thus, Passover is a time in which we dwell on the essence of what it is that defines us as a people: how does our experience of slavery shape the way we behave today? What does it mean to be a chosen people? And how is that we as a people deal alternately with powerlessness and power?
This latter question comes to the fore in our examination of Parashat Tzav. Rabbi Shmuel Avigdor HaCohen comments that while most of the sacrifices discussed in this week’s parashah come from cattle and sheep, there is also one bird which is permitted as an offering upon the altar — a dove. Why a dove? Talmud Tractate Bava Kamma teaches, “Rabbi Abbahu said: Let a person always be one that is pursued rather than a pursuer, for there is no bird that is pursued more than a dove and it is this bird which the Torah permits as an offering upon the altar. Rabbi Shmuel Avigdor HaCohen continues, “Scripture states that ‘God desires the one who is pursued’ (Ecclesiastes 3:15). Birds of prey cannot achieve the level of holiness required for a sacrificial offering. Only the bird that is pursued, the dove, is desired as an offering. God despises the pursuer and desires the pursued. It is therefore forbidden to bring a sacrifice — to come close to God — by means of an animal of prey, i.e. one that pursues that which is weaker than it.” The message rooted in the experience of the Exodus is clear — do not prey on those weaker than you. As Israelites, we are to act with a keen sense of justice — only this will bring us closer to God.
Renowned artist David Moss, in his extraordinary haggadah, depicts a chilling image toward the beginning of his haggadah. Taking his cue from illustrations of a rabbit hunt at the beginning of medieval European haggadot, Moss illustrates the emblems of nations that have persecuted Jews throughout the ages and notes that many of them took the eagle as their symbol. Moss illustrates the seemingly invincible eagle in each national emblem with a rabbit (the symbol of the pursued) in the beak or talons of the preying eagle. Both Parashat Tzav and David Moss give us pause to think about our role as the pursued as well as the pursuer. Having lived for some two thousand years in a state of powerlessness, the Jewish people are blessed with a country of our own and today, we are indeed in a state of power. This Passover, may we, seated around our precious Passover tables, challenge ourselves to think about the responsibility of power — and how our experience of powerlessness informs this special task. And may our sincere inquiry bring us closer to each other, and as a dove, bring us closer to God.
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz
Temple Beth Tefilah is represented on the Board of Directors of EHIM, East Hartford Interfaith Ministries.
What does EHIM do? The mission of EHIM is to identify and respond to human needs in our town, and to combine the resources of our member religious congregations for social service ministries.
Our ministries are:
- Friendship Center Soup Kitchen–Meals cooked and served by community volunteer teams.
- Human Needs Fund–A volunteer coordinator interviews clients and disburses funds for emergency assistance for rent, utility and medical expenses, making referrals to other agencies as needed.
- New Beginnings–Provision is made for one new appliance for families moving out of the East Hartford Emergency Shelter into their own apartment in East Hartford.
Other critical support is received through private individuals, corporations, charitable trusts, public grants, and United Way.
For more information visit www.faithlutheranct.org or call 860-568-0323.
Pictured here is Mary M. Donohue, co-editor of Life of the Land: Connecticut’s Jewish Farmers. She spoke at Temple Beth Tefilah, answering such questions as: How did these immigrants operate successful enterprises with little or no farming experience? Why Connecticut? Who and what helped support and sustain them?