The True Objectives of Charity
Did you know that the unlimited charitable tax deduction on individual tax returns is in danger of being gutted by Congress and President Trump?
The Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center in Washington, DC, has published a detailed analysis of President Trump’s tax proposal, and suggests that the cap on charitable deductions could devastate charitable receipts.
The change is far from a done deal, and is still just a proposal at this point. But charitable donations affect numerous sectors of the economy, and this proposal could have a major and adverse impact on our country. Of course it goes without saying that every charity has a champion in Washington DC, and every lawmaker is connected to multiple charities; these groups will make every effort to protect themselves from the inevitable repercussions of the proposed changes.
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, contains the first references in the Torah to charity-related legislation. One section discusses extending loans to the needy: “If you lend money to my nation, the poor man among you…do not charge him interest” (Exodus 22:24). This statement seems to indicate that lending money to a needy individual is a voluntary act.
But Rabbi Yishmael, a sage of the Talmudic era, rejects that interpretation, and insists that the word “if” means “when” — putting more pressure on the charitable lender to do his duty. But even if Rabbi Yishmael is correct, it is still puzzling that the Torah would use such an ambiguous word. Besides, the second phrase in this statement — “the poor man among you” — also seems superfluous. Isn’t it self-evident that the prohibition against charging interest is to prevent the exploitation of those in need?
In his magnificent Or Hachaim commentary, the eighteenth century rabbinical scholar, Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, offers an intriguing suggestion to explain this puzzle. For many people, life is extremely challenging — not least because they struggle to earn enough money to pay for their own needs and the needs of their loved ones. And yet this burden can be understood in the context of God wanting each person to seek out a relationship with Him through prayer and devotion. God gives us challenges so that we will connect with him on a daily basis to ask for help.
But while this explains the need for financial hardship, where does this leave us when it comes to financial success? Do those with wealth need no relationship with God? And if the answer is that God rewards those who have merited his blessing, this only prompts the question as to why God would reward anyone with more than they need?
Rabbi Attar proposes that this phenomenon is an equally important part of God’s overarching plan. There are those who must struggle for their livelihood, and there are those to whom He gives more than they need, so that those in need will have someone to go to that can help them plug the gaps in their finances.
It would seem that God wants the needy to ask for money from a real, live person, who can say either “no” or “yes.” Meanwhile, the role of the giver is to understand that any extra money they have has been given to them in trust by God, so that when solicited, they will deliver the money where it is required. The interaction between the asker and giver is an interface with God for both parties. Thus, a mundane meeting about charity suddenly turns into an extraordinary spiritual event.
It also explains the meaning of the ambiguous word and the superfluous phrase in this week’s Torah portion. If someone knocks on your door and asks for help, you can be sure it is because you are in a more privileged position than they are. In other words, the money that belongs to the poor is “with you,” and it is now your duty to act out your role in God’s plan.
Notwithstanding the outcome of the proposed tax changes — and I think it’s extremely unlikely that the proposals will be passed into law — perhaps they are nonetheless a good thing, prompting us to recall the true objectives of charity.