In response to most tragedies suffered by others not close to me, I, like many others, limit my practical response to praying for the well being of the victims or donating charity on their behalf. When particularly catastrophic events leave me feeling that there is more that I should be doing for the victims, I ask others to join me in praying for the well being of the victims or, more often, asking others to donate charity, as well. (Reminds me of the story of the the pilot who announced to the passengers that the plane’s final engine had gone dead and urged everyone to do something religious. And so the sole Jew on board stood up and made an appeal for the UJA.)
Some may save a baby from an inferno or flood, others counsel the bereaved. I, by contrast, hope that my prayers and gifts are well received and ease someone’s plight.
For those confined to offerring prayers and donations, we (the silent majority of frustrated do gooders) certainly hope that our praying and donating is at least done correctly.
An exploration of prayer is probably best left to the spiritually sophisticated, but charity should be pretty simple. The problem, however, is that the charity obligation is fraught with so many twists and turns that I wonder why our formal religious education taught us little more than that charity is an obligation and that “a tenth” is usually enough. Every year, I segregate my charity allocation in a special account, and then engage in repeated turmoil regarding the appropriate and responsible allocation of the moneys. I consult with rabbis for parameters and activists regarding causes. Alas, the advice I receive always leaves me with choices and decisions.
The most recent array of dire needs, both in Israel and in the Katrina devastated regions of the United States, has presented to me examples of charity dilemmas. How to assess and contrast needs and how to ensure the efficient deployment of charity dollars. Are the local homeless and hungry equally (if not more) deserving of attention, or should the urgency of more dramatic events influence the allotment of contributions? There is the tension between satifying a community’s spiritual needs and its physical needs, and whether there is a threshold for either that must be considered as primary. Does a triage system of charity translate into satisfying the first priority completely before the next tier receives dollar one, or does triage simply compel weighted donations, with first tier beneficiaries getting the greatest percentage, and the following tiers getting increasingly lesser amounts? Is it legitimate to justify a greater donation to a lesser cause when the donor can honestly assert that other donors are less likely to address the lesser, albeit worthy, cause?
Functioning as neither rabbi nor major philanthropist, I explore these issues as a private donor, simply trying to do the right thing. I am not certain that any of the dilemmas enjoy a uniform answer for all donors – but it appears to me that struggling with these issues is a major part of the obligation to be charitable.