Tzedakah: “Just Give, Give Justly”

May 5, 2023

A few years back, I stumbled upon a little video entitled, “Against Empathy”. In it, Yale University professor and psychologist, Paul Bloom, talks about the premise of his 2016 book by the same name, which is as follows: we are taught to think that putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and feeling their pain, that is, experiencing empathy, makes us more likely to help another person. But, this line of thinking, Bloom argues, “makes the world worse” because it “blinds you to long-term consequences of actions”. He says empathy is why “we care so much more about a baby stuck in a well than we do about global warming…”.  

Now, I have to say – I’m not ready to give up on empathy entirely. When it comes to our relationships, it’s extremely important. Empathy allows us to imagine life from another’s perspective, to put our egos and our immediate wants and needs aside, and be there for the people we love and care about. However, when it comes to charitable giving, it’s a different story.

In Against Empathy, Bloom cites examples of how emotionally-driven advertising affects people’s motivation to donate to charitable causes, noting, for example, how commercials with sad puppies, etc. are designed to make people want to help, and to feel good about giving, which Bloom calls “warm-glow altruism.” And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of that, Bloom says, in reality, this kind of giving is not sustainable, neither for the organizations nor for those who are moved to donate.  Many nonprofits take on losses on one-time donations because credit card companies charge them exorbitant processing fees… And most people eventually run out of empathy driven by sad puppies (unfortunately…), creating inconsistent giving patterns. So, what’s the solution? According to Bloom and his colleagues, it’s “effective altruism,” which demands that, before we take any action or give any money, we must first ask, “What does the world actually need?” and then “How can I use my resources – my time, money, skills – to make things better?”.

And brilliant as this is, Mr. Bloom was not the first to articulate this. In fact, the Torah sought to address this exact question of sustainable giving thousands of years ago, and offers its solution in this weeks’ Torah portion, Parshat Emor. Here, in the middle of the Book of Leviticus, the Israelites are commanded to leave the corners of their field to the poor and the stranger, which provides us with the foundation for the sacred obligation of giving tzedakah. The Torah acknowledges the reality that, try as we might, disparities will exist; some of us have more, some of us have less, and that those who have more are obligated to give. Whereas “charity,” which has its etymological roots in the Christian tradition and is often given from a place of empathy or of feeling sorry, tzedakah comes from tzedek, the Hebrew word for justice, and is deeply tied to the Torah’s pursuit of creating an equitable society, one in which we are obligated to care for one another in real, tangible ways, not because we’re sad or sorry or guilty, but because it’s the right thing to do. 

And it’s with this notion in mind that I’m excited to highlight a very exciting opportunity to live our values and fulfill this specific mitzvah of tzedakah on a number of levels: Join us for TOS’s Mitzvah Day on Tuesday June 13th!! (Why 6/13? Because there are 613 mitzvot or commandments!)

I am so grateful that this is a community committed to creating and sustaining a just society, and I hope you can join me for this very special opportunity to do just that.

Rabbi Jennifer Queen