Pat Robertson, the Christian televangelist, is currently coming under fire for his statement that Haiti’s disaster is the result of the nation making a pact with the devil many years ago, during the time of Napoleon III (!). To critics, this statement is not only deemed inaccurate, but inappropriate. Many of the suffering Haitians have probably never heard of Napoleon I, let alone a third one.
My purpose here is not to bash a brother in Christ, though I do feel his approach is both inaccurate and inappropriate, it is suggest a more appropriate approach.
Some years ago, I heard Dr. Roy Blizzard, a Hebrew roots teacher whom I greatly respect, talk about the central theme of what it means to be a follower of Jesus the Messiah. It is bound up in the Hebrew wordts’daqah – pronounced tsed-aw-kaw. It is usually translated “righteousness” – but in application it means far more than that. For example, many Jewish synagogues have a box at the back of the room with the word ts’daqahwritten on it. It is for almsgiving – charitable donations to help the poor. This usage captures some of the larger meaning of the word. The helpful little book, Everyman’s Talmud, explains the fuller meaning of ts’daqah:“Conspicuous among the features which distinguish the moral life is the eager desire to be as helpful as possible to one’s fellow creatures who stand in need of assistance. Charity, as conceived in the Talmud, falls into two distinct categories. The first is almsgiving, which is designated Tzedakah…It’s proper meaning is ‘righteousness,’” (p, 219).
In Judaism, “…assisting the poor is not an act of grace on the part of the donor, but a duty. By giving alms he is merely performing a deed of justice. All man’s possessions are but a loan from the Creator of the Universe, to whom belong the earth and the fullness thereof, and by his charity he merely secures a more equitable distribution of God’s gifts to mankind,” (ET. P.219). This view is confirmed by many passages of Scripture including Psalm 24:1.
In Matthew 6, Jesus instructs, “…Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men…When therefore thou doest alms, sound not a trumpet before thee,” (Matthew 6:1ff.). Jesus, speaking Hebrew, not Aramaic or Greek, would have used the word Tzedakah here.
God owns everything, including everything you and I own. A godly person distributes his or her wealth the way Jesus would if he were living an ordinary life among us. In one Talmudic passage, we find this beautiful and compelling thought, “When a beggar stands at your door, the Holy One, blessed be He, stands at his right hand,” (Lev. R. xxxiv.9). Jesus said that whatsoever we do to the least of his brethren we do to him. Study again Matthew 25:35-40 (I wrote recently about Matthew 25 in an earlier edition of this column.).
The point is, our duty as Christians is not to sit in judgment of the hapless Haitians. It is small comfort to tell a woman who has just lost all five of her children that it was because her ancestors made a pact with the devil. She needs love, comfort and empathy. She may also need food and shelter. She needs compassion.
Tzedakah is about meeting people at their points of real need. It is the duty of every Christian and every Jew. It is about giving them a fish, not a stone, when they need food. It is about sharing our blessings with those in need. The needs of the world today are simply overwhelming. Just about anything any of us could do would be a widow’s mite-sized contribution – a mere drop in the bucket of need. But even widows were expected to contribute that mite. We are all expected to give alms, no matter how poor we are. “He that oppresseth the poor reproaches his Maker; but that honoureth him hath mercy on the poor,” (Proverbs 14:31). God is honored by our contributions to the needy, no matter how small those contributions may be.
Haiti is but one needy part of a suffering world. Any Christian, anywhere, has his work cut out for him. In the greater Los Angeles area, for example, there are some 90,000 homeless people – some of them mothers with small children. We need to do what can for those hapless folks. As Jesus said, “The poor you always have with you.” The need is ongoing and it’s everywhere. Haiti is the current flashpoint. The United States, as usual, is doing the bulk of the work in helping the victims of the massive quake. The much-bashed US Military is in the forefront of the effort. How much help would Haiti be getting without the United States?
If you can find a charity that has integrity, by all means support the people of Haiti through it. But don’t neglect the ongoing needs of the people in your immediate family, church, neighborhood, community, town or city. As we learn from the Talmud, “Charity is equal to all the other precepts put together,” (B.B. 9a).