In February 2010, Alejandro Ergas, a 40-something businessman, was at home in Santiago when a massive earthquake struck Chile, leaving hundreds dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. In response, community leaders got together to plan relief efforts. As their discussions dragged on for three days with no practical response, Ergas couldn’t take it any longer. He loaded up a small truck with rice, water and mattresses, and along with his 16-year-old son drove eight hours south to the epicenter. They distributed the truckload of goods to the victims and drove back. “Maybe it wasn’t the most efficient way to help,” Ergas says, “but it made an impression on me that I’ll never forget.”
The experience spurned Ergas to evaluate his own attitude toward tzedakah – charitable giving. “For years, my idea of tzedakah was to write a check and send it in the mail,” Ergas told Aish.com. “But as I got more involved, I realized that tzedakah does as much for the giver as it does for the recipient. I found that the more I give, the more friends I have, the better I feel, and the more my business succeeds.”
Ergas was frustrated, however, at the overall lack of awareness in the Jewish community. “A rabbi will typically speak about tzedakah on Yom Kippur, when making an appeal for the synagogue or Israel Bonds. But there is so much more beauty and wisdom in our tradition that is not being communicated.”
So why, Ergas wondered, couldn’t there be a special day devoted to learning and committing to the ideals of tzedakah?
Thus the concept of “Yom Tzedakah” – Jewish Charity Day – was born.
After consultation with rabbis, he settled on Rosh Chodesh Elul (August 30-31, 2011), the Jewish calendar day that falls out exactly one month before Rosh Hashana.
Elul, the last month of the year, is a period of preparation for the High Holidays. One of the central Rosh Hashana prayers states: "Teshuva, Prayer and Charity remove a bad decree." In this way, Yom Tzedakah is a great way to launch into the holiday season and ensure a good judgment on Rosh Hashana. As the Talmud says: In that in the way we treat others, the Almighty will treat us as well.”
There are several ways to celebrate Yom Tzedakah:
(1) Give monetary aid directly to the needy.
(2) Designate a tzedakah box at home and commit to putting in a coin regularly.
(3) Volunteer to help others.
(4) Be especially alert to the needs of family and friends.
(5) Send a contribution to a communal organization.
(6) Investigate universal problems and possible solutions.
Says Ergas: “Although we have an obligation to help others every day of the year, the idea is that on this day, everyone – men, women and children – should reflect on being more generous, and on giving tzedakah according to their ability.
A basic tenet of Judaism is the striving to transcend and sanctify the material world. The Talmud (Baba Batra 9a) states that the mitzvah of tzedakah is equal to all other commands, because through giving tzedakah we refine and elevate all the energies that were involved in earning that money – the hours of work, emotional toil, etc. In this way, tzedakah is a huge force for spiritualizing the material.
Further, based on the verse in Deuteronomy 14:22, the Sages derive a formula for success in life: "Aser bishvil shetis’asher" – "tithe so that you will be rich." (A 10% tithe is the standard obligation.) This promise of riches applies in both a spiritual and physical sense. Spiritually, one who gives tzedakah becomes rich by refining himself and becoming a better person – elevating himself spiritually, and overcoming the apathetic and individualistic attitude so prevalent today. Physically, he receives a promise to become rich and increase his possessions.
It is for this reason that the Sages say: “More than the rich person does for the poor, the poor person does for the rich.”
“People think that when they give, they have less,” says Ergas. “But nobody ever became poor from giving. In the spiritual world there is a natural law that states: You have to give, to get."
Maimonides, in his “Laws of Gifts to the Poor" (10:7), denotes eight levels for giving tzedakah. The highest level is to provide money to someone who has lost his job, and help him get a new job. This has huge ramifications for today’s high-unemployment economy. In Chile, for example, Ergas has created the Ariel Foundation (www.arieljobcenter.cl), an extraordinary program which provides free job training and job referrals.
“By providing monetary assistance, no matter the amount, we show that the money really does not belong to us but to God,” says Ergas. “He gave it to us to be ‘administrators,’ to manage the money and use it in the best possible way. We are God's ‘bankers’."
Another Jewish principle is that tzedakah begins at home. If your parents are hungry, that comes before giving to a homeless shelter. From there it is concentric circles outward: your community, then your country. (Jerusalem and Israel are considered as one's own community, since every Jew has a share in the homeland.)
Though this project is just getting off the ground, Ergas has grand plans. “My dream is that one day, Jewish communities around the world will celebrate Yom Tzedakah every Rosh Chodesh Elul. Synagogues will conduct educational symposiums. Foundations will launch grand tzedakah projects. And each individual will reflect on being more generous, more sensitive to the needs of others.”
Yom Tzedakah – Rosh Chodesh Elul – falls out on August 30-31, 2011.