In accordance with Jewish tradition, out of respect, I do not write G-d's name, even an English substitute, in a place where it may be discarded or erased.
I am often asked each year why millions of dollars and much time and energy are spent to build synagogues, religious schools, and a slew of other religious and academic institutions. You may ask, "Why aren't those resources used to feed the hungry, house the homeless or work to alleviate all the suffering that goes on in many places in the world?
Why should we care about the homeless? Is it our business? Are these people members of our own family and worthy of our concern about them? Why is it our problem and why should we care for the needs of others?
It is not logic that drives us to help others. On the surface, at least, it is illogical to give away our hard-earned money. Our family might need that money. Why would we give it to someone we don't even know?
If it is not human nature compelling us to help a stranger and there is no legal obligation to share what we have with others, then what drives our desire to do so?
We have values, principles of right and wrong plus conceptions of good and bad that directs our lives and demands that we behave a certain way. We don't give charity because it makes sense, or because we instinctively feel the urge to give or because the law of the land instructs us to. We give charity because it is moral, it is right; it is good to help those who are in need.
Where do our morals come from? What is the source of the value of charity? It was the Hebrew Bible that proclaimed that our income is only partly ours. It doesn't really belong to us at all, but is given to us on loan, to use to serve G-d, to better G-d's world and to distribute to the needy. The Hebrew word for charity is tzedakah, meaning "justice." The Jewish tradition sees charity not as a noble act of generosity, but as a moral act of justice. To give is simply the right thing to do.
We may have a wonderful sense of values, but they do not live in a vacuum. To survive and spread, values need institutions and communities in which they are fostered and taught. That is the function of a synagogue and other religious institutions along with their education program. These are places where values are taught and lived. By joining a community devoted to these ideals, we become sensitized to the needs of others. By studying our institution's messages and following the way of life it teaches, its values are shared and passed down.
We need to give tzedakah to feed the poor and shelter the homeless. But we also need to ensure that the very value of tzedakah is nurtured and sustained, so that our children should never suffer from moral poverty.
The money, time and energy for synagogues, religious schools and other religious and academic institutions are, indeed, appropriate in the manner in which I have described. Synagogues teach morals and values, especially the importance of helping others. It is their growth and survival that provides the common gathering place in which problems of the hungry, homeless and other sufferings are addressed and brought to the forefront of our thinking.
Rabbi Konikov is director of Chabad of the Space and Treasure Coasts and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org