Are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur a call to end charity? To most Jews around the world, that message sounds contrary to our experience of the Jewish New Year. That is because, traditionally, the High Holidays are not only a time of celebration, renewal, and atonement — they are also a time of giving. Be it through the tradition of bidding for aliyot, or making Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur pledges, Jewish congregants spend this time of year giving tzedakkah to their synagogues and to Jewish and secular charities that serve the larger Canadian or international community.
But what if the Torah and our prophets’ words enjoin us to aspire to a world with no charity? In fact, Jewish teachings do just that — directing us to build a world where there is no need for charity. No need for charity because we have implemented socio-economic and political structures where people, be they seasonal workers, minimum wage earners, or seniors, live with dignity and financial security.
The Torah says: “There shall be no needy among you.” This statement commands us to build a world where there is no tzedakkah, as we use the word today (i.e., charity only). There is to be no needy among us because we have true tzedek, meaning righteousness, graciousness, justice. An important example of this ideal is reiterated in the Bible verse, “The wages of a labourer shall not remain with you until morning,” which immediately follows the injunction against defrauding or robbing our fellow. And so, one could argue that not only is it clearly wrong to withhold wages, but that withholding fair wages is a breach of this commandment, too.
This commandment is particularly relevant in the 21st century. Even in our relatively progressive society, workers are often not paid for their work or are so underpaid that it’s akin to their wages being withheld every morning. People work at low wages that prevent them from being able to afford rent, food, and the basic necessities of a dignified life. Precarious and seasonal jobs aggravate instability, inequality, as well as the mental and physical health of workers and their families. And we regularly purchase products that are made by overseas workers who are horribly underpaid and work in inhumane conditions — conditions which create the needy among us.
Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi of Hebrew Union College and Rabbi Jocelyn Hudson of Temple Beth Sholom in California have asserted that holiness and just socioeconomic practices are intertwined in the Torah. One is integral to the other. Similarly, many Jewish faith leaders across Ontario have advocated for a $15 minimum wage.
Of course, none of this means that we should stop giving charity. Quite the opposite. While the Torah commands us to create just societies, it also recognizes the complexities of human nature and the slow pace of our evolution. And so, immediately after the proclamation that there shall be no needy among us, the Torah commands. “If, however, there is a needy person among you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand.” That is the basis for charity, as we understand it.
The prophets, too, remind us to give generously. The Yom Kippur reading condemns us for oppressing our labourers, and commands us to “Let the oppressed go free,” to share our bread with the hungry, and to take the “wretched poor” in our home. It reminds us that our fast should provoke empathy for the one in seven kids who go to school hungry in Toronto each day, for the 900 million people in the world who live on less than $1.90 a day, for the 400 out of 618 First Nations communities in our country who regularly – continuously – do not have clean and safe drinking water or whose waters continue to get poisoned for our benefit. It’s a call for charity and for creating conditions that would obviate the need for charity.
These High Holidays, while we give generously to our neighbours and fellow human beings who have been oppressed or are less fortunate, let’s remember that we must also strive for socio-economic and political conditions that eliminate the need for charity. Let’s remember the words of another wise Jew, Albert Einstein, who said, “Striving for social justice is the most valuable thing to do in life.”