One recent Shabbat our rabbi gave an excellent and uplifting commentary on the week’s Torah portion. It involved the concept of giving of charity. Addressing the issue of giving charity anonymously, he argued, and rightfully so, that sometimes there is moral and positive grounds for doing so. A giver of charity may not want to embarrass the recipient. The giver may wish to avoid any perception of boasting based on his ability to give. On the other side, the rabbi argued, giving face to face also may have its moral and elevating aspects. The giver and recipient, for instance, connect emotionally and spiritually by seeing each other as equals in God’s eyes despite the inequality of wealth.
I laud my wise rabbi for sharing his wisdom on this important topic.
With that said, I perceived a great void in the room, namely a discussion of what is going on every year in America, whereby charity is egregiously and improperly defined as the act of politicians giving things to people. Each year now, politicians in Washington, with the vigorous support of millions of constituents, especially Jewish ones, order millions of us to go to work and hand over hundreds, no, not hundreds, but now thousands of billions of our dollars to others they define as in need of charity.
Undoubtedly, a number of truly deserving poor in very rough circumstances find rightful comfort, sustenance and support from such an action. But is the action right, lawful, moral and truly compassionate? More importantly, is it an act of charity? I, and millions of others argue, no, it is not. It is wrong. It is wrong primarily because God commands us not only to give charity, but equally commands us not to steal.
The great scholar, author and economist Walter Williams summarizes it best. He writes about how most of us would react, and properly so, if a neighbor came to us with a gun pointing toward our body and ordered us to mow the lawn of the frail older woman next door. Perhaps, instead, he ordered us to go to work and pay our neighbor $100 a week because she suffers from poverty after her husband left her. Most Americans would consider these immoral acts, acts of theft of time and money — acts having nothing to do with charity. Most Americans with good moral compasses would think that way whether it was a single neighbor doing the ordering, a 51 percent vote of the neighborhood association, or a majority vote in the House of Representatives. This is not charity, it is theft.
But millions of Americans, especially in our Jewish community, cheer on politicians in Washington who take that metaphorical gun and point it at citizens and demand hundreds of billions be handed over to their neighbors. Now even Donald Trump is ordering a business owner to give “charity” to his employee with guaranteed six weeks childcare leave. Where is the charity in that? Where is the lawfulness and morality in such an action? It is nowhere, and our wise, religious, and kind founders understood it was nowhere to be found in such actions, particularly at the federal level. A man ordering another to take his private property and give it to a neighbor is doing a morally reprehensible thing. Our founders understood that charity by definition needs an act of a man voluntarily and willfully giving of himself.
It is why the great James Madison rose on the floor of Congress to say, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which grants a right to Congress of expending on objects of benevolence the money of their constituents.” He said that because he was a fine, wise, learned and deeply religious man. He said that because he was a deeply moral man. He said that not out of greed or selfishness, but as one with a properly set moral compass. He understood that such issues deserved to be considered at a very local and state level, in our civic space of churches, synagogues and private charity organizations.
We are commanded to give charity by God in the setting of a great gift from our creator, the gift of free will. Charity comes into being when a man hears that voice of our creator and reaches into his pocket and freely hands another his private property.
Senators, representatives, administrative bureaucrats or Jews helping to fill the coffers of the now gigantic Leviathan state in Washington with vast sums of money they have commanded from free, hardworking Americans to dispense to others they feel more worthy is not charity. We can rationalize all we want about the “will of the people” or “being responsible for our fellow man,” “the need for a wide social safety net” or this being a “democracy,” but there are ways to effect kindness and charity. Stealing is not one of them. Our American and Jewish values show us the proper way: Look at your fellow suffering man, reach in that pocket of yours, write the check and give of your own free will.
Howard Sachs lives in Chevy Chase.