Yom Rivii, 17 Tishri 5780
Hol Hamoed Sukkot Wednesday, 16 October 2019
Parashat Ki Tavo 2011

Parashat Ki Tavo by Rabbi Sandra Kviat
16 September 2011

 

Strangers before the orphaned?

Who has not by now been ‘chugged’?

A chugger is usually young and cheeky, well spoken and full of energy. You find them on most high streets in groups of threes and fours patrolling the pavement and like fishermen trawl through the crowd looking for a moment of weakness.  The minute you make eye contact you are caught in their net. Chuggers or charity muggers are the people who manage to play on our guilty consciousness and rope us into donating, usually on a regular basis, to a specific charity. Sometimes being chugged is convenient as it is an easy way to get your monthly donations over with. But for many it is annoying and disturbing and most of all creates confusion because how are you going to choose who is the most needy or worthy or both? Should we support shelters, human rights, food programs, children, the environment, or animals? If we cannot support them all however much we wish how do you choose between them?

Maimonides ladder of tzedaka has as its highest ideal making a person independent of any further help or as the Chinese proverb says ‘Give a person a fish and he will eat for a day, teach him/her how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime’. Tzedaka is not charity though we normally translate it that way. Charity comes from the Latin word caritas which means love and since it is coming from the heart is therefore voluntary. Tzedaka’s root meaning is justice and importantly is not a voluntary act but an obligation like other commandments. But this does not solve our problem of who to choose to donate to because are not most charitable causes worthy?

We might find some inspiration from this week’s parasha which has a rather surprising list of priorities: ‘...I have given it [tithe] to the Levite, the ger [resident alien], the fatherless and the widow’ (Deut. 26.12)

The Levites were religious functionaries but did not have rights to land and could therefore not farm the land for themselves and so their tithe can be seen as an ancient form of council tax. The surprise lies in the resident alien, the non-Israelite, who in this list, repeated through Deuteronomy, comes before the orphan and the widow. How come the stranger comes before the orphaned child or the defenseless woman? The ger like the Levite was not entitled to land and was therefore economically vulnerable. The orphan and the widow were perhaps expected to have family to support them or in the case of the widow had the option of remarrying. Or perhaps they inspired more compassion and good will than an adult stranger. But these justifications do not change the surprise that the resident alien, an able bodied adult, is more vulnerable than the fatherless child. Today the strangers in our midst are the immigrant and the asylum seeker. Whether documented or undocumented, rather than legal or illegal, the experiences of those coming to the UK are not rosy despite the fact that Britain and its businesses are dependent on immigration. Because are they not going to threaten our way of life? Are they not a drain on resources?

In our current economic climate there are even more fears than usual that there will not be enough support to go around and this worry, though perhaps not well founded, is to be taken seriously. Because it is when we feel threatened that we do not act as we should. Worries about not having enough to live are not new and are probably the reason why the Torah stipulated that we have to put the stranger at the top of our list of justice. Because though we worry about the wellbeing of our families we are not allowed to lose our humaneness and empathy because if there is one thing that comes out of our religious tradition it is that we too have been strangers in other lands. So next time you find yourself worried about who to give your time, skills or money to, think of the plight of the stranger among us.