Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah – SJN, November 2015

On November 22 Jewish communities across Britain will be marking Mitzvah Day, which has become an annual event in recent years. And so, across the country congregations and other Jewish groups will be focusing their energies on helping others. The word, mitzvah, means ‘commandment’ (Plural: mitzvot), but on Mitzvah Day the focus is on engaging in a very particular mitzvah, or rather, two very particular mitzvot: tz’dakah and g’milut chasadim.

These mitzvot are often translated as ‘charity’ and ‘loving deeds’ – or ‘deeds of loving kindness.’ Their literal meaning is instructive. Based on the Hebrew root, Tzadi Dalet Kuf, to do what is ‘right’ or ‘just’, tz’dakah, connected to the word, tzedek, ‘justice’, is actually, not charity. Derived from the Latin, caritas, ‘love’, charity is giving motivated by love of others. By contrast, tz’dakah is giving motivated by our obligation to act righteously and justly. Whether or not we feel concern for others, we have the responsibility to share our wealth and our resources with those less fortunate than ourselves.

The mitzvah of g’milut chasadim on the other hand, does require us to summon up our capacity for compassion for others. However, the emphasis on our responsibility to act remains. While chasadim, the plural of chesed, means both ‘love’ and ‘kindness’, and so expresses a feeling, g’milut, based on the root Gimmel Mem Lamed, ‘to deal with’ means ‘deed.’ Feelings of care and concern alone are not enough; we are obligated to put our feelings into practice.

Two mitzvot derived from g’milut chasadim illustrate this very well: hachnasat or’chim, welcoming guests, and bikkur cholim, visiting the sick. In Pirkey Avot, The Chapters of the Sages, included in the Mishnah, the first rabbinic code of law, edited around the year 200, we read: ‘The world stands on the Torah, and on the Avodah [Divine Service] and on G’milut Chasadim (Avot 1:2). These three pillars of the world in turn, stand only because as the English saying goes, we ‘practice’ what we ‘preach.’

So, how does this all relate to Mitzvah Day? Mitzvah Day calls us all to practice tz’dakah and g’milut chasadim – but not just on one day of the year. Each one of the groups or projects that are being highlighted on Mitzvah Day this year requires support throughout the year. May all our efforts on Mitzvah Day in Brighton and Hove, across the south coast and throughout the country, galvanise, inspire and motivate us to practice tz’dakah and g’milut chasadim every day.