The Art of Charity
Charity should begin at home, but should not stay there. -Phillips Brooks
The Torah introduced to the world the charitable concept of tithe (Maaser), of giving one tenth of our income to the needy. However, the Torah is particularly sophisticated and nuanced as to how, when, what, to who, and how much charity we are to give.
In analyzing the Torah’s charity directions we need to take into account that it was presented to an agricultural society (which has defined humanity for the last several millennia). Every tenth animal from the flock was given as charity. Besides ten percent of the produce that was collected, any produce that was dropped, forgotten or left behind became the property of the poor (within well-defined parameters). A corner of one’s field was left for the poor to harvest. Much of the agricultural gifts weren’t so much handouts as much as an opportunity for the poor to gather and earn food for their families, while doing work and keeping some semblance of honor.
Within the concept of tithe itself, there are actually three different types: Maaser Rishon (first tithe) given to the Levites, Maaser Sheni (second tithe) taken by the farmer himself (or traded for money for food) together with his family and consumed festively in Jerusalem, and Maaser Ani (the poor’s tithe) given to the poor.
Rabbi Hirsch on Deuteronomy 26:15 explains the significance of these three types of tithes. Maaser Rishon, the first tithe, was given to the Levites, for they were the ones charged with the education of the people of Israel. They were responsible for transmitting the Torah, its moral and spiritual precepts to the people. That is the foundation of our nation. Maaser Sheni, the second tithe, was eaten and enjoyed by the farmer’s family in a state of purity within the walls of Jerusalem. One of the underlying concepts is the care we need to take of our own physical selves, our families and the moral purity of our actions in this physical world. The third tithe, that of Maaser Ani, for the poor, is the basic and simple responsibility we have to those less fortunate than us. We cannot see our brethren go hungry. We have the obligation to ease their distress as we are able to. No success is complete without looking out for the weaker ones of our communities.
Then and only then, after we have fulfilled these three different dimensions of charity, that of looking out for our nation’s educational needs, that of looking out for the physical and moral welfare of our own families and that of looking out for the weaker members of our people, then can we call out to God as the passage concludes and declare: “God, I’ve done what You’ve asked. Look down from Your Holy abode, from the Heavens, and bless Your people, Israel, and the land You have given us.”
May our ability and capacity to help our families, our communities and our needy never falter.
To the myriads of people affected by Hurricane Harvey. May we be able to help them, each according to our own capacity and may they recover quickly and return to the safety and comfort of their own homes and institutions.