Across America, 30 million workers – roughly one in five – are now collecting unemployment benefits. Were we not struggling with a mammoth health crisis, this crushing loss of jobs would represent a major challenge in its own right. Involuntary unemployment means painful human suffering. For families that no longer have a regular income, the financial struggle, the fear and the loss of purpose are profoundly difficult.
This week, Israel released new numbers on the implications of pandemic-related job loss there. More than half of Israelis are concerned they won’t be able to cover their monthly expenses, and one-fifth have cut back on the amount of food they consume. The statistics also reveal widespread anxiety – 42% of those surveyed had symptoms. A further 21% are experiencing feelings of depression and 19% report they are lonely.
The figures may be a little better in the U.S., but not markedly.
If you still have your job, or you can count on a comfortable income stream, such concerns might seem remote. Your neighbor’s tears don’t make the news. Feelings of hopelessness don’t usually get shared on social media. Those down the street who can’t pay their bills are suffering through a crisis that is largely in the background. Many scarcely notice.
Unless you’re a medical professional you can’t do much to improve the condition of those who are actually afflicted with coronavirus. There is, however, a good deal that each of us can do to help those who are without a paycheck. Some can actually provide jobs. Maimonides rated helping an individual to function independently as the highest level of giving, and if you have a job to offer – now is the time.
All of us, though, can contribute tzedakah. And I mean all of us. Let’s remember this important insight of Jewish tradition: for Jews, the saying “we’re all in this together” is not just a slogan.
Here’s why: Judaism refuses to countenance a two-tier society where some people are the givers and others are the receivers. Our tradition insists that everybody should be empowered to be a giver, that all of us – including the least well off – should be able to participate in actions that strengthen the community.
The Talmud (Gittin 7b) teaches in the name of Mar Zutra that “even a poor person who is sustained by tzedakah must also give tzedakah.” It’s a truly counterintuitive instruction. I know of no other system that has a similar requirement. But when it comes to bolstering human dignity and strengthening societal solidarity, it’s an impressive expectation.
Insightfully, Rabbi Bradley Shavit-Artson writes: “Tzedakah is not about giving; Tzedakah is about being. Being a Tzedakah-giver defines who you are as a person and as a Jew. To tell anyone that she or he is too poor to give is, in a way, tantamount to taking away her or his very existence.” In Judaism, everybody merits the standing of being a giver; nobody is left out of the task of building a more just society. Those in need should never hesitate to seek out and accept tzedakah, because it enables them to be contributing participants in shaping the community.
After all, our tradition reasons, we can never know what the future will bring. The day may come when those who now need tzedakah can comfortably do without, while those who are now self-sufficient become disadvantaged. No matter our circumstances, though, we can and should all be givers.
Many might conclude that while this sounds admirable, it is wholly impractical. How can people without enough to feed their families be expected to set aside funds to participate in the mitzvah of tzedakah?
The Jewish answer is as follows: the onus is on those who have more than enough to provide in a manner such that households that are in financial need not only get enough to live on, but to give on as well. We need to ensure that there is food on the table, and also that all are tzedakah-enabled.
What will it take to meet that goal? The only answer that will work is this: even more generosity. As is well known, the Jewish mandate for monetary giving sets a base rate of 10% of income for those fortunate enough to have income. That teaching comes from the Torah. Sometimes, though, we forget that this is the minimal fulfillment of Jewish law. The clearly stated range is 10% to 20%, with a preference for selecting a level that is above the lowest rung.
Six months ago, none of us could have foreseen the tough circumstances in which we now find ourselves. Employment rates were good, jobs felt secure and the economy was relatively strong. Now, none of that is true. Ask any communal agency tasked with providing assistance, and they will tell you: their role in supporting the vulnerable has expanded dramatically, and the demand will probably remain elevated for an extended period.
In times like this, Jews know what we are called upon to do: we are asked to provide and receive sustenance and dignity for as long as it takes. And what does that mean? It means that, in times like this, 10% is not enough. PJC
Rabbi Danny Schiff is the Foundation Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.