One of the Mitzvos recorded in Parshas BeHar is the Mitzvah of Tzeddakah. The Torah states "כי ימוך אחיך ומטה ידו עמך והחזקת בו," teaching that if a member of the Jewish people should find himself in financial crisis, the rest of the community is mandated to help him (ויקרא כ"ה:ל"ה). The volume of requests for financial assistance on behalf of individuals in need has reached epic proportions today. One of the telling signs that the Jewish community has come of age is the number of social services provided on behalf of our community. There are hospitals, schools for the deaf, blind, and learning disabled, all under Jewish auspices. The number of Yeshivos representing every ideology is at an all-time high. Along with the services rendered and educational opportunities offered, however, comes the burden of financing these very costly projects. Whereas in the "Shtettel" of old, one generally received such requests exclusively from the local townspeople, today, as a result of a sophisticated network of communications and transportation, those requests reach people's doorsteps from the four corners of the world. The Jewish community, perhaps better than most others, has recognized that Tzeddakah is to be given not only to achieve an objective, such as saving one's life (צדקה תציל ממות"") or attaining forgiveness (ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזירה""). Tzeddakah is a sacred obligation designed to accomplish one of Hashem's objectives, namely, the doctrine of social equality. Divine will dictates that man must attempt to strike a reasonable balance between the "have's" and the "have not's." The laws relating to Yovel, Ribbis, and Tzeddakah all contribute to the process of distribution of wealth. There is, however, one problem associated with the Mitzvah of Tzeddakah that must be focused on.
The Shulchan Aruch (יורה דעה סימן רמ"ט סעיף א') formulates the Halacha based on a Beraisa in Kesubos (דף ס"ז:), saying שיעור" נתינתה אם ידו משגת יתן כפי צורך העניים." This means that if one has the financial means, one is to provide all of the needs of every poor person. Obviously, this is far from the reality. How, then, does one allocate available resources? Is it first come first serve? Does one favor institutions or individuals? Is the political or religious ideology of the person in need a determining factor in one's decision?
Clearly, Halacha has established certain priorities. The Shulchan Aruch (שם סימן רנ"ב סעיף א'), based on a Gemara in Bava Basra )דף ח.(, states, for example, that the monies collected for any Tzeddakah may be diverted to the redeeming of captives, for Pidyon Shevuyim receives the highest priority. The Tur(שם סימן רנ"א ), quoting the Rosh )שו"ת הרא"ש כלל י'(, and the Shulchan Aruch שם( סעיף י"ג) state that if a community has limited funds, and they know that if they should hire a Rav, they will not have a Chazzan to lead them in Tefillah BeTzibbur, but if they hire a Chazzan, they will not have a competent authority to respond to Halachic inquiries or offer religious guidance, then the Halacha is that if the Rav is an expert, they should hire him, but if not, they should hire the Chazzan. We thus see that the Halacha clearly establishes certain priorities. The Maharik (שו"ת מהרי"ק סימן קכ"ח) discusses the question of whether to give to a Shul, or for children to learn Torah, or for sick people, and says that apparently, the Halacha recognizes that if limited funds are available one need may be provided for, while another will be deferred until additional funds are received; the Shulchan Aruch שם( סימן קמ"ט סעיף ט"ז) agrees to this.
The Halacha also furnishes examples as to how to respond to multiple requests within the same category. The Torah states "כי יהיה בך אביון מאחד אחיך באחד שעריך בארצך," referring to poor people in your land )דברים ט"ו:ז'(. The difficulty which the Sifrei )שם( detects is the link between the Mitzvah of Tzedakkah and Eretz Yisrael if this is not a מצוה התלויה בארץ, related specifically to the land of Israel, to which the response is, "עניי ארץ ישראל קודמין לעניי חוץ לארץ," the poor people in Eretz Yisrael come first. The Gemara in Kesubos )דף ד.( mentions further that local poor people must be taken care of before outside poor people, and the Shulchan Aruch )שם סימן רנ"א סעיף ג'( rules accordingly. In such a scenario, two people with the identical need approach a person who has the resources for only one. He can offer support for one and unfortunately must defer the other; the local person, one of the עניי עירך, is given priority. The definition of the phrase "עניי עירך" is vitally important as it relates to our society. Typically, it is defined literally to mean the residents of one's own city, who take precedence over those of another city. But it is difficult today to define city limits in this regard. Rabbi Hershel Schachter, citing Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, has stated that the proper definition today is individuals or organizations with whom one has some kind of rapport. Ideological preference will determine in this case which poor person is granted Tzeddakah and which is deferred until additional funds are available.
Despite the fact that the Halacha has established both sets of priorities, there is one major difference between the two. In terms of priority of category, there is no personal inclination or logic that would lead an individual to favor one above another. Supporting a poverty stricken individual and building a Shul are vital for a community. One could easily defend supporting either of the two causes. It is exclusively the Halacha that favors building a Shul over supporting an individual poor person. Similarly, it is the Halacha that has determined whether one should hire the Rabbi or the Chazzan. However, when focusing on the second set of priorities, those in which two people in the same category approach a person for funds, or two Yeshivos seek assistance, the Halachic resolutions, such as relatives before neighbors, or poor people in one's own city before poor people of another city, are in perfect harmony with resolutions that would be based on personal preference. The overwhelming majority of people feel a greater kinship and responsibility to members of their own family or members of their own community above and beyond strangers or members of other communities. Because of our love and commitment to Eretz Yisrael, we would prefer to direct a greater share of our Tzeddakah allocations to the poor of Eretz Yisrael as opposed to the poor of another city.
The fact that the personal preferences and Halachic solutions coincide is significant for a variety of reasons. There is a well documented principle that "אין מעבירין על המצות," meaning that when given the opportunity to perform one Mitzvah, one does not push it aside to perform a second Mitzvah. For instance, based on the principle of תדיר ושאינו תדיר תדיר קודם, teaching that that which is more common should be taken care of first, we generally put on our Tallis prior to donning Tefillin every morning. But if one were already holding the Tefillin, he would not put them down in order to initially place the Tallis upon himself, because of אין מעבירין על המצות. One could easily understand it if the Halacha did not establish any priorities concerning Tzeddakah. One would simply respond affirmatively to the first request and base such behavior upon "אין מעבירין." One could suggest that the reason the Halacha rejects this approach is based on another dimension within the Mitzvah of Tzeddakah. The Torah states "לא תאמץ את לבבך ולא תקפוץ את ידך," meaning that one should not close up his heart or his hand when given the opportunity to give Tzedakkah (שם). The Shulchan Aruch (שם סימן רמ"ט סעיף ג') amplifies this by saying, "צריך ליתן הצדקה בסבר פנים יפות בשמחה ובטוב לבב," meaning that one must give Tzedakkah in a pleasant and generous fashion. The only way to cultivate an attitude of giving Tzeddakah in the spirit of בשמחה ובטוב לב is for the Halacha to practically equate its priorities with those of personal preference. If one is free to give to one who is dear and precious to him, such as relatives, neighbors, or people in Eretz Yisrael, he will give Tzeddakah willingly. Under such conditions, it is not difficult to comply with this requirement. A second Halacha, though technically not relevant to this issue of Tzeddakah allocation, will underscore the importance of giving willingly. For any Halachic transaction to take effect, there must be complete דעת מקנה, meaning that the person giving the money must be doing so willingly and with full understanding. If one begrudgingly hands a poor person a donation which he doesn't really want to give, it is not בשמחה ובטוב לב, and there may not be complete דעת מקנה. To avoid this, one must give in accordance with one's own choice; he must give to those people or institutions which share one's own ideological persuasion.
In light of the above, we can formulate a practical proposal. First, Tzeddakah should not be given out in a random, haphazard fashion. Each family should determine in advance how much they must set aside for Tzeddakah. Once the quantitative amount has been established, allocations and distribution should reflect the Halacha's priorities. Pidyon Shevuyim, redeeming captives, comes first, which would include the securing of the release of all Russian Jews. However, once these individuals have secured their freedom, providing for their absorption is not necessarily included in Pidyon Shevuyim. The second priority is to offer funding to provide Jewish education. Since there may be several hundred institutions seeking assistance, one should be guided by the principle of עניי עירך קודמין both in the geographic sense and the philosophical sense. One will give more freely to a school of one's own ilk. If one is a graduate of a particular institution, then that institution deserves the lion's share of this allocation. As for עניי ארץ ישראל קודמין, the question is which עניי ארץ ישראל? Again, it should be those who identify with one's own inclination. If one appreciates Hesder Yeshivos, then one's allotment should be reserved for such Yeshivos and not for any other Torah institution. The third priority is to support one's Shul, which will enable it to function as a מקום תפילה, a מקום תורה, and the vehicle through which social and religious services will be provided to the broader Jewish community. Finally, one may turn to individual Tzedakkah requests, responding to various pleas for financial help. Once again, once should be guided by the documented principles of עניי עירך and עניי ארץ ישראל קודמין. If one sets aside funds for this purpose, it will be given to individuals of one's own choice, whether through local federations to raise desperately needed funds to house new Russian immigrants, or for someone in one's community who may have been unemployed for the last few months and is having difficulty meeting his expenses. Through such planning, one will be able to give even before a request is made, which, as the Rambam )פרק י' מהל' מתנות עניים הלכה י"א( states, is a higher form of Tzedakkah than responding to a request.
These modest proposals are by no means intended to reduce the amount of money given to Tzedakkah; quite the contrary. One should give as much as possible and most importantly, give in a manner which truly reflects the fact that one understands the importance of this Mitzvah. Hopefully, we will one day merit seeing the fulfillment of the Torah's promise לא יהיה בך אביון"," "there will be no poor person among you" )דברים שם פסוק ד'(.