The Jewish commitment to charity is both deep and illustrious, going to the core of the Jewish faith. The Sages put tzedakah among the most important of all commandments, if not the very highest. Maimonides offered a scintillating account of the moral hierarchy of charitable giving which has not been surpassed in a millennium. Famously, he regarded as the highest of all giving to be the kind that allows the recipient to break the poverty cycle and thereby become self reliant.
The roots of the commandment to charity are deep. They go to the essential call on all of us to help sustain life, to heal the world (Tikkun olam), and to remember that we were once ourselves strangers in a strange land. Tzedakah is justice itself. As the world changes, so too must our response to the profound commandment of charity. In line with globalization, I would like to urge a globalization of our tzedakah as well, that we increasingly aim our charitable impulses and energies to places on the planet in most urgent need, where tzedakah can mean the difference of life over death for millions of our fellow human beings each year, and where our giving can satisfy Maimonides’ call to break the poverty trap itself.
Notably, the charitable impulse arose in the distant past, far before our present affluence. We delight at the wonderful moment in Fiddler on the Roof when the beggar complains at receiving only one kopek rather than two. When the donor responds that he had a bad week, the beggar famously replies that “You had a bad week, so I should suffer?” The deeper truth in this is that charity throughout Jewish history was deeply ingrained communities in which even donors faced tremendous and chronic risks of impoverishment, famine, and deprivation. Charity was and is a commandment for all, even the poor, and even at times of mass vulnerability.
Now affluent Jewish communities around the world can look well beyond their immediate material needs. Indeed, the level of material affluence that we enjoy is beyond the wildest reckonings of even the recent past. Today’s middle classes in the high-income world, not to mention the more affluent members of the community, live far beyond the materials standards of the royalty of all earlier ages. Unlike the donor in Fiddler on the Roof, we can afford two kopeks, or two dollars, or two shekels, week in and week out. The vagaries of life continue to be real, but not because of imminent risks of extreme material deprivation.
Such is not true, of course, for more than two billion people on the planet, living in conditions of severe material deprivation, and it’s certainly not true for the poorest billion people, whose material deprivation is so extreme that life is a daily struggle for survival. The poorest billion lack reliable access to food, micronutrients, safe drinking water, basic preventative health care, and essential health treatments when sick. A drought, an infection, a pest infestation, can easily claim the lives of parents and children, with death sweeping through whole communities. Best estimates are that around 8 to 10 million people die each year for the simple and preposterous reason that they are too poor to stay alive.
Scientific studies of the plight of the poorest have illuminated their plight, and the way out. Around three-quarters, if not more, of the poorest of the poor are impoverished farm families living in fragile and marginal physical environments: places suffering from endemic and epidemic diseases such as malaria; environments subject to drought, floods, and tropical storms; lands degraded and denuded of tree cover; and regions isolated from the flow of world trade and finance, up in high mountains or landlocked regions or far from coasts and navigable rivers. Sub-Saharan Africa, not surprisingly, combines all of these “high risk” factors of extreme poverty.
Yet scientific studies have also shown what can be accomplished even in these marginal environments if the poor are empowered with the tools of modern, proven technologies. Africa can grow vastly more food than it does if farmers are availed of improved seed varieties, better water management (e.g. drip irrigation), and organic and chemical systems to replenish depleted soils. Diseases such as malaria, African river blindness, hookworm, and many more can be brought under control with proven technologies. Internet and cell phone connectivity can connect rural areas that have been chronically and devastatingly isolated from the international economy. The UN Millennium Project which I direct for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has shown how investments on the order of $110 per person per year can make the difference of life and death, and poverty trap versus economic development, for hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people.
Here is where we, as Jews, come in. Tzedakah can be effectively mobilized for these impoverished communities. For example, it is time for Israel to resume its large-scale aid to Africa, reviving and extending programs that were disrupted by miserable anti-Israeli politics in Africa a generation ago. We are in a new era in Africa, with democratic leaders around the continent who would be grateful for the support of Israeli science and know-how in agriculture, water management, and communications technology.
Affluent Jewish communities around the world could be doing much more as well. Many charities that have tended to focus on local or parochial concerns rather than on the poorest of the poor worldwide. It is urgent and timely to cast such activities in a wider, indeed global, reach. The American Jewish World Service, on whose Board I am honored to serve, is an example of a dynamic and effective organization that brings succor and valuable support to the poorest of the poor throughout the world, enabling communities to lift themselves out of chronic hunger, poverty, and ill health.
The truth of our time is both stark and compelling. Given today’s wealth, scientific expertise, and global reach, we are the first generation in the world that can truly end extreme poverty. This is both opportunity and existential fate. Given that our generation truly holds the very lives of millions of impoverished people in our hands, we must do no less than commit to fulfill the wondrous opportunity that we have been granted to help heal the world. If we turn our backs on the world’s poor, we too will suffer the brutal fate of shortsightedness and neglect. If we act, as we can and should, we can help usher in an era of widening prosperity and peace.
Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility (shma.com) Vol. 36, No. 627, p. 13