Urgent pleas to help flooded Texas and Louisiana flood my inbox. Many of these fundraising emails are from Jewish nonprofit organizations – which stands to reason: charitable giving is hardwired into Jewish tradition.
There are many reasons that Judaism makes a high priority of helping others. One reason hails from theology and human equality. Each person is made b'tzelem Elohim (in the Divine Image), so helping others uplifts each person's innate holiness. A second reason hails from ancestral experience. We who descend from slaves, exiles and the impoverished carry empathy's imprint for all who suffer. When we remember who we are, we naturally open our hearts and wallets to others.
A third reason reflects gratitude for the blessings we enjoy, a teaching from this week's Torah portion (Ki Tavo). Torah teaches that we "shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which [we] harvest from the land that ... God is giving [us], put it in a basket and go to the place where ... God will choose to establish God's name.” The obligation to share reflects not only our gratitude but also our covenant to be in relationship with the sacred.
Gratitude, though seemingly straightforward in theory, can be elusive in practice. In the moments we reap the successes of our lives, those precious and delicious fruits most seem like the blessings they really are. It's easy to be grateful and generous in moments of bounty and success – though even then it's not automatic. Often we over-attribute what we have to our own efforts, and not also the love, education, connections, opportunities, generosity and luck that helped make it possible. However hard we work for what we have, we have much to be grateful for.
Then we see the news from Texas and Louisiana, where 19 trillion gallons of flood waters inundated tens of thousands. Gratitude by comparison is part of the human condition – there but for the grace of God go I – and if we really mean our gratitude, the impulse to help should be automatic.
Amidst such devastation in our land, we return to Torah's words and note that God's gift of our land is in the present tense – "the land that ... God is giving [us]," not "the land that ... God gave us." In the context of Moses’ life, the "land" meant the Land of Israel. But in Torah's words, God keeps giving, in the present tense of this very day, so the "land" must mean where we are now. The first fruits – the best our communities and country have to offer – therefore belong to the first Source of those blessings.
From our homes in this land of the free, we can click on a PayPal link and send money to the victims of Hurricane Harvey. That’s the easy part. We believe that Torah is urging something more. Give money, and also give the best that we can for our communities and country – protecting wetlands, redressing climate change, building wisely, supporting the vulnerable.
The land is commended to our care because we, each other and the land all are holy. As we give the first fruits our blessings each year, care for suffering people and for this suffering planet. Make your charitable giving and your advocacy an expression of covenantal relationship with the Source of all. In so doing, acknowledge God for our freedom to help improve life for others who suffer. What a blessing that is!
R’ Evan J. Krame and R' David Evan Markus