When considering the word tzedakah, we tend to think of it in terms of the Almighty Dollar. After all, many of us have an array of “tzedakah boxes” — from ubiquitous blue tin pushkes to glitter-covered coffee cans made by children, to unique works of art — lining the desks and shelves of our homes, most filled with pocket change (and maybe some lint as well).
Tzedakah, we’re taught early on, is all about giving back to your community, helping those who are vulnerable, disenfranchised or lacking in basic needs. It’s easy to scoff at society’s fixation with materialism, but it’s hard to accomplish much without dinero. As the old Jewish saying goes, “Life’s not as good with money as it is bad without it.” Or as my mom used to say, “With money comes honey.”
Still, to think of tzedakah in only monetary terms is a misappropriation of the phrase. In his classic “The Joys of Yiddish,” Leo Rosten defined tzedakah as “the obligation to establish justice by being righteous, upright, compassionate — and, above all, helping one’s fellow man.”
By that definition, tzedakah is so much more multi-nuanced than simply writing a check or dropping dimes into a jar. It’s about giving your time to people, striving to create a more fair and equitable society, and simply being kind to each other.
Sometimes, the latter means just being friendly to someone who might seem lonely or out of sorts. It might sound trite but the power of a smile or asking someone how they’re doing cannot be overestimated, especially during these times of disconnect and despair. In fact, I’d suggest such behavior is the highest form of tzedakah (though I’m certainly no rabbi).
Our community recently lost a mentsch by the name of Eytan Berman. Eytan, who grew up in Randallstown and lived in this community most of his life, moved to the Boston area a few years ago with his wife, Sara, and their kids. But I’ve never forgotten his empathy and compassion for others.
One anecdote in particular sticks out in my mind during these days after learning of Eytan’s untimely passing at age 55. Eytan and I originally met through mutual friends when we were in our mid-20s. We often ran into each other in the community. He was tall and handsome, but what really stood out was his smile. It was warm, genuine.
I lost touch with Eytan for many years after we both married and started families. But one night, my mother called to say she had run into an old friend of mine. Seems she was sitting alone in a fast-food joint when a young dad came in with his two adorable daughters. They sat down near my mom and started eating, gabbing away.
At some point, the dad noticed my mother admiring his little girls and said hello. They started chatting for a while and he asked her about herself. While talking, through the magic of “Jewish Geography,” they realized they had me in common. “Of course I know your son,” Eytan said. “He’s a dear old friend of mine. How’s he doing?”
Not long afterward, our daughters happened to become friends and I started seeing Eytan regularly at playdates, birthday parties, shul, Hebrew school pickups and community gatherings, always with that infectious smile and interest in others. He loved to schmooze and cared about people, and I’m certain his willingness to brighten the day of an older stranger in a Pikesville McDonald’s is but one instance of the mentschlikeit he exhibited throughout his lifetime.
That’s the power of tzedakah. That’s the power of giving.
Alan Feiler, Editor-in-Chief