Tucked away in two places in the Book of Proverbs is a brief, cryptic statement: “tzedakah saves from death” (tzedakah tatzel mimavet) (Proverbs 10:2 and 11:4).
Surely this can’t mean if we give tzedakah (that is, charitable contributions) we will be immortal! After all, those who give generous amounts of tzedakah and those who give none will ultimately meet the same fate as all human beings. So giving tzedakah certainly doesn’t save us from our own eventual death.
But it’s easy to see that our tzedakah can literally save the life of recipients we may never know. This is the understanding I’ve had for many years of this statement from Proverbs.
I read an interpretation of this proverb in a short story called “Charity,” by Hugh Nissenson. The narrator is a 12-year-old boy living with his parents in great poverty in 1912 on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. The family goes hungry six days of the week and only splurges on food for Friday night’s Shabbat dinner.
The father would always bring home a poor stranger to share their Shabbat meal, and invite him to spend the night. “They were almost always old men smelling of snuff, who wore ragged beards, earlocks, and had dirty fingernails.” When the young narrator would complain about the old men’s snoring the father would shush him and say, “Remember. ‘Charity saves from death.’”
That December the boy’s mother takes ill and is taken to the hospital on a Friday afternoon. The boy, believing his acts would save his mother’s life, shops and prepares a Shabbat meal. The father, as usual, has brought home a guest, this time an old, emaciated Hebrew teacher. Later, the old man’s snoring keeps the boy awake. In the middle of the night he tells his father he is feeling much better because he now knows his mother will get well.
“How can you be so sure?”
“You said so yourself…You said that charity saves from death.”
His father responds with anger: “Is that what you think a mitzvah is? A bribe offered the Almighty?”
“But you said so. You said that charity saves from death.”
The old man groans in his sleep, and the father says, “No, not Mama. Him.”
I have remembered this ending, and its message, vividly although I first read it years ago. It is a message that has guided my own tzedakah giving.
This year I realized another dimension of “tzedakah saves from death” — giving tzedakah on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, and also at Yizkor. Although we remember our loved ones throughout the year, the formal act of making a charitable contribution in their memory at these times does save them, in a spiritual sense, from the oblivion of death.
Whether attending High Holy Day services or not, this is a time in the Jewish year for us to give tzedakah in honor and memory of loved ones. They may no longer walk the earth, but as long as they are remembered, they are saved from the finality of death.