The Meaning of Charity


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To the Editor:

When thinking about charity, most think of donating money to causes like medical research or helping the less fortunate. Last year Americans gave half a trillion dollars, so charity is as American as apple pie, and an integral part of American character. Our ideas of charity, however, are often quite narrow, like the idea that the recipients of our giving should always be alive or even what really constitutes giving. Admittedly, it’s an odd thought. How can the deceased benefit from charity? Let me explain. In Judaism, charity carries a much broader meaning. While charity, or tzedakah, still most commonly benefits the living, the highest form of charity one can give is to the dead.

It’s really quite simple. The cornerstone of charity is selflessness. It’s not about you. If you seek gratitude or recognition for your kindness, your check is not worth the paper it’s written on. And that is what makes charity to the dead different. The dead cannot be grateful.

In everyday life, we push death as far away from us as possible. However, there are people, who make caring for the dead their life’s calling. In Israel, a unique volunteer organization, ZAKA (Identification, Extraction, and Rescue – True Kindness), counts about 3,500 mostly Orthodox Jews as its members. ZAKA volunteers, operating all around the world, can assist with first aid if necessary, but mostly they aid with the recovery and identification of bodies of victims of terrorism and natural disasters. In Israel, these bearded guys in yellow vests are unfortunately a familiar sight. It’s common knowledge, that their task is to collect every bit of flesh and blood of Jews for proper Jewish burial, and the remains of non-Jews,  to be returned respectfully to their families. Including the suicide bombers and other perpetrators of the attacks.

Ordinarily thinking about ZAKA is like thinking about death, you push it out of your mind, but a few days ago, I read about a 28-year ZAKA veteran, who was hospitalized after suffering a breakdown. The thought was staggering. This man’s eyes for decades have seen the horrors most of us simply can’t fathom, but even somebody like him was not able to cope with what he saw on October 7th.  Thousands of mangled bodies; some raped so brutally their pelvises were broken and bloody to the waist, some with eyes gouged, some dismembered, some decapitated, some bundled together and burnt alive with only the spinal columns left to tell how many people there were. Babies, the elderly, children, adults, men, women, families. 1400 in all.

ZAKA gave them all respect, peace, and dignity in death. Their last act of kindness was beyond human endurance and put them in mortal danger, some of the bodies were rigged with live grenades aiming to kill anyone who attempted to pick them up. But there is another type of charity, that’s within anyone’s reach. Honoring these innocent victims. Honoring them by speaking the truth, that these people weren’t the casualties of war. Their murder, unimaginable in its brutality, was the goal—the goal to remove as many of them as possible, as inhumanly as possible from this world. Intent is the cornerstone of our morality. Comparing genocidal terrorists, using their civilians as human shields, to the soldiers fighting them to protect their civilians is immoral, and thinking, that Israelis did something to deserve this, is doubly so. It may be an odd thought, and for some, it could be harder than it seems, but recognizing these simple truths is real kindness and charity to both the living and the dead. 

Thank you,

Pavla Levin
New Canaan