People have recently been interested in our unique, yet traditional, charity/tzedaka philosophy at Tamid.
The sages in our tradition taught that, “10% of your income shall be set aside as tzedaka. It does not belong to you anyway. God has merely entrusted it with you so that you may give it freely.”
What is the insight in this lesson? After all, the leaders could have placed a 10% income tax on the people and forced a charity payment. Or, they could have created a flat tax and forced everyone to pay an equal amount to support the community. Or, they could have avoided it all together. After all, not all religious traditions have the practice of giving charity.
So why does Judaism teach that 10% of your income shall be set aside as tzedaka . . . . that you may give it freely. You may have thought until now that tzedaka was only an act of generosity, or an expression of kindness and empathy. But that’s not what the text says. The sages are teaching a deeper lesson.
They are showing us a very human insight on positive character development. They are teaching that tzedaka is an act of freedom. Judaism is not a religion that promotes materialism and permanence. Money, materialism, and physical things are not divine in Judaism. Rather, Judaism promotes learning, honesty, family, friendship, community, and humility – values that are often overlooked in our highly achievement oriented and material driven society.
The sages knew that if we become too attached to money and the material world, we could become slaves to them, to envy, to reputation, and to self importance. Therefore, tzedaka is a practice that helps free us from identifying exclusively with the material and physical world. It points us to a higher plane of existence and meaning. The sages imply that we should use 90% of our income wisely but to let 10% pass through as tzedaka. After all, it does not belong to you anyway. God has merely entrusted it with you so that you may give it freely.”
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How does this teaching impact our philosophy at Tamid? First, we don’t shine a light on donors and recognize people by the amount of tzedaka they give. There are no front row seats to buy at the high holidays, no levels or donor categories, and no names on our programs or buildings. While some organizations have these practices, I believe they undermine spiritual freedom and human equality which cannot be bought.
Judaism is not a commodity and there’s nothing for sale at Tamid. I believe that in today’s social/economic/political climate, this must be said to balance the influential messages that surround us daily. Yet, we have real expenses to the tune of around $800,000 per year and we hope that we can generate this amount from the 10% of your income that “God has merely entrusted with you so that you may give it freely.”
Like most things in Judaism, one positive act encourages and enables another. What appears at first to be a personal lesson in freedom, actually provides a greater good – in our case, the good we can do together with our collective tzedaka. Thank you for trusting Tamid with your charity. I promise that we respect it and use it wisely.
Darren Levine, D. Min