Last weekend we celebrated America’s founding, and the precious values of democracy and individual liberty that are embodied by this great country. We did so knowing that we are blessed to live in one of the most prosperous countries in the world. Of course, the U.S. has its share of poverty — the Bible tells us “There will always be poor people in the land” (Deuteronomy 15:11) — but still, Americans enjoy the lion’s share of the world’s wealth, as well as access to education, medical care, and other essentials.
Even as we are grateful for these blessings, they also give us a sense of responsibility. Christians and Jews alike know that all good things come from God, and are graciously given to us for our wise use. Our shared Judeo-Christian tradition tells us that God works through us to bless those who are less fortunate.
While Christians have Jesus’ words about caring for the poor to guide them, Jews have the mitzvah (good deed) of tzedakah, or charity. The literal translation of tzedakah is “righteousness” — this is because the Bible teaches us that we are considered righteous and holy in God’s eyes when we give our time and effort to help those in need. We are guided, too, by the words of the prophet Isaiah: “If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday” (Isaiah 58:10).
In fact, charity is central to Judaism. Jews are among the most generous philanthropists not only to their own charities, but to non-sectarian causes as well, such as universities and hospitals. And even with all of her own needs, Israel, the Jewish state, has sent teams to Japan, New Orleans, Haiti, and other places around the world in the wake of devastating natural disasters. Israel is a country that cares for the needs of others.
The passage above from Isaiah is central to our mission at The Fellowship — so much so that we even named our initiative to help needy Jews in the former Soviet Union (FSU) Isaiah 58. This biblical chapter and these principles guide our work in the FSU as well as all of our efforts to assist God’s people at risk and in need. As people of faith — Christians and Jews working together — we consider this work our duty and our privilege.
As we move forward from this day that reminds us of how truly blessed we are, may we together take delight in our God who sees and cares for the needy and downtrodden in our world, and who — amazingly — uses us to extend that care. Let us all walk in obedience to this call to alleviate pain, please our compassionate God, and heal our broken world.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews