Choosing to Give of Ourselves: A Reflection by Rabbi Gil Steinlauf

You’re walking down a busy street. You’re late for an appointment. Suddenly, you pass a homeless person who says, “Can you spare some change so that I can get something to eat?” What do you do?

If you’re like most people when you’re late for an appointment, you probably keep walking. You may even rationalize that they would just use the money for drugs anyway. But then, notice how you feel inside when you do that. It doesn’t feel good, does it?

Now, think about what happens when you do the opposite – when, in that moment, you recognize that person’s humanity and make yourself stop to give them something? It’s a feeling of joy and gratitude.

But how is it that, in a stressful moment of lateness, we are able to feel joy and gratitude when being kind to a stranger?

There’s a line in our High Holy Day prayer books that we read every year. It goes by quickly, but its meaning is central to the experience:

ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רעה הגזרה

“…but repentance, prayer and tzedakah will avert the severity of the decree”

Why are we thinking about tzedakah on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Sitting in synagogue for the long services, we certainly can understand the importance of prayer — and the prayers certainly talk a lot about repentance of our sins. But tzedakah? Most of us understand tzedakah to mean ‘charity,’ or giving money to help the less fortunate. That’s certainly a wonderful mitzvah, but why single that one out, when there are so many beautiful mitzvot to think about? Actually, tzedakah absolutely belongs with repentance and prayer as the very point of the High Holy Days! This is because tzedakah means so much more than just ‘giving charity.’

The English word ‘charity’ refers to the funds themselves, or to the value of supporting the less fortunate. By contrast, the emphasis of tzedakah is on the action of giving itself! In other words, the essence of tzedakah is YOU and your choice to overcome the inertia of self-interest, of all the excuses you make to yourself, and to transform your best intentions into action. In this way, tzedakah isn’t just about money. It’s about any time you act beyond self-interest for the sake of making the world a better, more just and loving place.

If we only listen to that self-centered little voice in our head, we would never believe that the act of tzedakah could possibly be worth our while. But when we choose—in the moment—to act against our self-centered impulse, it feels nothing short of joyful. In that moment, we have taken all the meanings of all the prayers, and all the intentions we have to repent for our wrongdoings, and translated them into action in the world. In the moment of our act of Tzedakah, we are living in harmony with how our souls were created in the first place. In that moment, we are truly in the image of God.

Tzedakah matters that much!  And on the days that we contemplate our role in this amazing and vast universe, tzedakah is central to the High Holy Days and to understanding the essence of who we are.

This year, let’s commit to the practice of giving when asked, however small or great, and let’s trust that feeling of joy and gratitude when we can give. That feeling is nothing less than the voice of God within us letting us know that we are making the world a better place for us, our people and for all human beings.


L’Shanah Tovah Tekateivu. May we all be inscribed for good in the Book of Life!