Eight rungs of tzedakah
Little Free Libraries are open 24/7 in cities across Canada. (photo by Josie Tonio McCarthy)
Have you heard of the Little Free Library movement? It’s a way for neighbours to exchange books. Throughout Winnipeg, Vancouver and other cities, there are little freestanding houses, a little bigger than a birdhouse. If you have a book you no longer want, you can leave it. If you’re looking for a book to read? You can take a book whenever you want. These Little Free Libraries are open 24/7.
Walking to our closest Little Free Library has become an important destination for me and my twins. It’s free, good exercise, and encourages our love of reading and learning. My twins often argue over which book to donate. Our house is overflowing with books. In order to take home a new storybook, we have an “even-exchange” policy.
Recently, I read on the National Public Radio (NPR) website about a similar U.S. movement, but, instead of books, the little house is a food pantry for the hungry. One family calls theirs a “blessing box.” Others call it a “little free pantry.” Sometimes, only one family stocks it with food, diapers or toothpaste. Sometimes, a whole neighbourhood takes part. The article mentioned that, in one neighbourhood, most of the food is taken between midnight and 7 a.m.; in another, the food comes and goes continuously. It’s a way of helping others anonymously. You don’t have to face someone at a food bank to admit your family is hungry and cannot afford food.
When I read this, I wanted to build one of these little food pantries right away, but then realized that, in a cold Canadian climate at this time of year, canned food or other stuff won’t do well outdoors. Even if that freestanding unheated food pantry doesn’t work out right away, the concept still made me want to do better than I’d been doing.
I thought about a worksheet I’d used to teach religious school, maybe 20 years ago. I can’t find that piece of paper anymore but I remembered the point. It was about Maimonides’ ladder of tzedakah (justice, or charity). Maimonides (Rambam), a great Jewish scholar and teacher in the 12th century, lived in Spain and Egypt. I borrowed the following summary from the Jewish Teen Funders Network website, to remember the details.
Maimonides believed that tzedakah is like a ladder. It has eight rungs, from bottom to top. Each step you climb brings you closer to heaven.
1. The person who gives reluctantly and with regret.
2. The person who gives graciously, but less than one should.
3. The person who gives what one should, but only after being asked.
4. The person who gives before being asked.
5. The person who gives without knowing to whom he or she gives, although the recipient knows the identity of the donor.
6. The person who gives without making his or her identity known.
7. The person who gives without knowing to whom he or she gives. The recipient does not know from whom he or she receives.
8. The person who helps another to become self-supporting by a gift or a loan or by finding employment for the recipient.
To put this tzedakah approach into practice requires work. Many of us are stuck on the first five rungs of the ladder. I’m going to skip the first two rungs, because, while many of us may have only achieved this level, I’m going to act like we’re better than that. Right?
For instance, our membership dues to a synagogue or other Jewish organizations are acts of tzedakah, but usually of the third-rung kind. (If we could afford to donate more, we sink below No. 3.) We occasionally may get up to No. 7, when donating to a food bank. If you decide to “sponsor” something in the community and your name is pasted all over the event, that’s No. 5. It means, for instance, that while you do not know who ate the kiddush lunch you sponsored, everyone who is there knows your name. So, while some do this to celebrate a special event with their community, others do this named sponsorship because they like the attention. It’s tzedakah, sure, but it’s also about ego.
We could change the way we do our “tzedakah” business. We could push our Jewish community higher up Maimonides’ ladder. Here are some ideas.
Instead of “name in lights” sponsorship, we could donate anonymously to support a community meal, event or service. This could perhaps allow an organization to sponsor a free event. Maybe a congregation could have a nicer kiddush lunch on a Saturday or have an oneg on a more regular basis. It could boost the financial situation of an essential community function, like operational costs (heat, lights, water?), educational events, building renovation or maintenance. It could raise the salary of someone who works for the Jewish community. It could create new employment for someone in our community. It could offer a loan or gift to someone who needs a step-up to begin supporting himself or herself.
Ach! I hear you saying. I’m no moneybags. I can’t pay for someone’s salary. Fine.
If these sound too hard, lower your goals. Could you consistently offer a small amount of money or time when asked to help? Could you pay membership dues early? Could you donate food to the food bank every time you grocery shop? Maybe empty the change from your pockets every Friday afternoon to put in a pushke (collection box)?
Making a difference and working your way up that ladder can start small. It can be as simple as being gracious about donating. What about volunteering time or thanking others who donate? Many of us have the capacity to climb this metaphorical ladder. Shall we ascend those rungs together?
Joanne Seiff, a regular columnist for Winnipeg’s Jewish Post and News, is the author of a new book, From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016. This collection of essays is now available for digital download, or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her on joanneseiff.blogspot.com.