Trying to eliminate pain and poverty is a daunting task. Do we stand a chance?
Poverty. Terrorism. Depression. Our world is in desperate need of repair. Divisiveness and violence must urgently be replaced by kindness and compassion. We need to find ways to make a positive difference in the world ― to turn the pain into positive change, and to lead humanity back on the road to peace.
This is not just a global problem. It is highly personal as well. If someone spills ink on the floor, and asks you to clean it up, you might say, "Hey, you made the mess ― you clean it up." But when it comes to world problems, nobody will say: "I didn't cause the problem, so why should I do anything about it?" Everyone agrees we should try to help. If you knew how to cure cancer, you'd cancel your vacation. We're all responsible.
When it comes to universal problems, everyone agrees we need to help.
The Hebrew word "tzedakah" is commonly translated as "charity" or "tithe." But this is misleading. "Charity" implies that your heart motivates you to go beyond the call of duty. "Tzedakah," however, literally means "righteousness" ― doing the right thing. A "tzaddik," likewise, is a righteous person, someone who fulfills all his obligations, whether in the mood or not.
The verse says: "Tzedek, tzedek you shall pursue" ― justice justice you shall pursue (Deut. 16:20). There's a basic human responsibility to reach out to others. Giving of your time and your money is a statement that "I will do whatever I can to help."
That's the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam ― repairing the world.
Parameters of Giving
Aside from helping those in need, we have many other financial obligations ― family, savings, even basic living expenses. So how much are we expected to help? Should we drop everything and run off to Africa to stop the famine?
The Torah recommends giving 10 percent. (Hence the popular expression "tithe," meaning one-tenth.) The legal source is Deut. 14:22, and the Bible is filled with examples: Abraham gave Malki-Tzedek one-tenth of all his possessions (Genesis 14:20); Jacob vowed to give one-tenth of all his future acquisitions to the Almighty (Genesis 29:22); there are mandated tithes to support the Levites (Numbers 18:21, 24) and the poor (Deut. 26:12).
Ten percent is the minimum obligation to help. For those who want to do more, the Torah allows you to give 20 percent. But above that amount is unrealistic. If you give too much, you'll come to neglect other aspects of your life.
When choosing one project over another, calculate why it is more effective.
Of course, don't just impulsively give your money away. The Almighty provides everyone with income, but it comes conditionally: Ten percent is a trust fund that you're personally responsible to disperse. God is expecting you to spend His money wisely.
If you were running a humanitarian foundation, you'd make a thorough study of the best use of your money. It's the same with tzedakah. When you choose one project over another, you have to calculate why it is more effective than the other. Consider it the "Your-Name-Here Save the World Foundation."
Put this money aside in a separate account. That way it will be available when the need arises. And it is a constant reminder of your obligation to help.
How to Prioritize
There are so many possible projects: the poor, the sick, the uneducated, drug abuse, domestic violence, the homeless. Which one should you pick?
Tzedakah begins at home. If your parents are hungry, that comes before giving to a homeless shelter. From there it is concentric circles outward: your community, then your country. (For Jews, Jerusalem and Israel are considered as one's own community, since every Jew has a share in the homeland.)
Once you've defined "who" to give to, what's the best method to do so? Maimonides lists eight levels of tzedakah in order of priority (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7). Many people think the highest level is to give money anonymously. Actually there's an even higher level: helping a person to become self-sufficient. This includes giving him a job, or a loan to start a business.
Rather than give him fish to eat, teach him to be a fisherman.
You can also protect someone's self-esteem by giving even before he asks. The bottom line is that every person has needs. It is our obligation to help each one accordingly. If you help someone start a business, he can feed himself and 10 other people besides. As the old saying goes: Rather than give him fish to eat, teach him to be a fisherman. This represents a higher level of Tikkun Olam, because now the fisherman can go out and help others. You've really fixed something.
There's actually one higher level of tzedakah: being sensitive to someone before he's in trouble. As the Sages explain: It takes one person to support something before it falls, but after it falls, even five people may not be able to lift it. (see Rashi, Leviticus 25:35)
Tzedakah is not only helping people financially, it's also making them feel good. If a hungry person asks for food, and you give it to him with a resentful grunt, you've lost the mitzvah. Sometimes giving an attentive ear or a warm smile is more important than money.
You can also protect someone's self-esteem by giving even before he asks. The bottom line is that every person has needs, and our obligation to help each one accordingly.
What if you offer someone a job and he's too lazy to work? Then you don't have to give him anything. The Talmud (Baba Metzia 32b) says: If he doesn't care about himself, then you're not required to care about him, either.
Beyond the 10 percent commitment of money, there's another aspect: a 10 percent commitment of time.
If you're really serious about fixing the world, you won't just mail a check. You'll join an organization. Many of the world's great revolutions have succeeded by strength in numbers: the civil rights movement, women's rights, or even save the whales.
What if no organization exists?
Then create it.
The Talmud (Baba Batra 9a) says: "Greater than one who does a mitzvah, is one who causes others to do a mitzvah." If you really want to be effective, wake others up to the problem, and mobilize their efforts.
Wake others up to the problem, and mobilize their efforts.
Imagine that a child is sick with a rare disease. If it's an acquaintance, you'd probably say, "Oh, that's terrible."
Now ask them: "Okay, what are you doing about it?"
"Me?! What can I do about it?"
If you care, you could do a lot. If it was your cousin, you'd take some personal responsibility, perhaps researching information on the Internet.
If it was your own child, you'd leave no stone unturned.
I know a young couple ― he's a businessman and she's a doctor. They found out that their two young children had Gaucher disease, a debilitating condition that is handicapping for life, and sometimes fatal. So what did they do? Together they founded an organization, committed to finding a cure for Gaucher disease. She conducted the medical research and he raised the money.
There was no guarantee of success. But inasmuch as it was their own children, there was no alternative but to try. And the Almighty helped them. After six years, they developed a synthetic enzyme which can effectively treat the condition ― and their two children became the first in the world to have a hopeful prognosis.
Big goals, small goals. If you want to make a difference, it's possible.
All For You
Beyond the basic responsibility of tzedakah is rachamim, "mercy" ― caring about others personally and getting involved. You can walk around claiming to be a good person, but unless you feel it inside, you're not really there.
That's why the Torah juxtaposes the command to "love your neighbor," next to the prohibition "not to stand idly by while another is in need." (Leviticus 19:16-18)
Don't cruise through life as if it's some obstacle course: watch out, here's a human being, manipulate him, push him, score a point, one-upmanship. That's not the way. You have to share the burden.
The Talmud asks, "Why was Adam created alone? So that every person should say, 'the entire world was created just for me.'"
This is a recognition that everything ― including the needs of every other human being ― was created for you. We are all caretakers of this world, responsible to deal with the problems. Everything on earth, problems as well as beauty, offers an opportunity for you to connect and to grow. Every person you encounter is there because you need it at that time. If someone needs help, it's part of your challenge, a message for you.
Look around at absolutely everything and ask, "What is this saying to me? Why was this sent as part of my path to perfection?"
Why was this sent as my path to perfection?
Feel the victims of society. Feel the victims of crime. Feel the victims of terrorism. Feel the victims of old age. Feel the victims of discrimination. Feel the suffering of people you will never meet ― about the plight of strangers halfway around the world.
How do you become real with the suffering of others? To understand the problems encountered by a blind person, for example, try blindfolding yourself for a day. Or go to the hospital and visit patients who have lost limbs. Share the burden.
Make the Difference
Ultimately, every human being is striving for universal perfection. We have a divine spark that yearns to make a difference in the world. We all care. We just need to focus our attention.
Tikkun Olam means committing oneself to solving the world's problems. If everyone would give 10 percent, there would be no problems in this world ― no hunger, no cancer, no homelessness.
Once you acknowledge that you are responsible for the whole world, only one question remains: What will you do about it?
When you care about problems, you'll set priorities, organize, and make the sacrifice. And with the Almighty's help, you will change the world.