Taking Stock: Tzedakah and Tzedek

It's summertime, which is a good time of year to sit back and take stock. What do you want to accomplish with your giving?

Our point of view at Federation Philanthropy Partners is that the philanthropy we help you with—which includes a wide range of causes and grantees—can be driven by four Jewish values: taking care of the needy (tzedakah), healing the world (tikkun olam), pursuing justice (tzedek), and building community (kehillah). I recently read a passage from the Talmud that examines two of these values—tzedakah and tzedek—and how they are related but different:

"On the eve of every Sabbath [Rabbi Huna] would send a messenger to the market and any vegetables that the gardeners had leftover he bought up and had them thrown into the river...…When he had a meal he would open the door wide and declare, 'Whoever is in need let him come and eat."

– Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Ta’anit 20b-21

When I first read this story in the Talmud, I wondered: Why is this person buying the leftover vegetables at the market and then throwing them in the river? Why would he buy this food only to waste it? Then he opens the door of his home and invites the hungry in to eat? What is he doing?

The second act, letting all who are hungry come and eat, is easy to understand. He is meeting the immediate need of hungry people, feeding them one time. That is tzedakah, helping the needy.

The motive for throwing the vegetables in the river to go to waste was more puzzling. Upon reflection, I realized that it was actually an example of tzedek, or pursuing justice.

The story goes on to explain his motivations:

"Should he not rather have had these distributed among the poor? [He was afraid] lest they would then at times be led to rely upon him and would not trouble to buy any for themselves. Then why did he purchase them at all? This would lead [the gardeners] to do wrong in the future [by not providing an adequate supply]."

This person has wealth, but rather than using this wealth to simply feed people, he decided to also work toward systemic change. His motivations are two-fold: first, he does not want the people in his community to become dependent on his generosity; second, the vegetable purchase at the end of the day acts as a market subsidy. In order to ensure a reliable food supply from the farmers, he buys their surplus inventory so they will continue to grow an adequate supply.

While one part of this person’s philanthropy is directed at solving the acute need of the hungry (tzedakah), the seemingly strange act of buying up agricultural surplus actually ensures a safer, more reliable system of food production. The focus here is to support a stable society by investing in the overall economic strength of the town. I see this as an effort toward justice, or tzedek.

When you sit back and take stock of your philanthropic vision, you have choices. You can choose to support the organizations that provide relief for immediate need, or you can choose to support organizations that invest in shaping the system. Whether you choose to feed the hungry directly or find your own metaphorical vegetables and throw them in the river to promote systemic change, we can help you find grantees that fit your vision for creating a positive impact in the world.

Categories: Philanthropy


July 29, 2019