Parshat Kedoshim: The True Meaning of Tzedakah
מֹ֧אזְנֵי צֶ֣דֶק אַבְנֵי־צֶ֗דֶק אֵ֥יפַת צֶ֛דֶק וְהִ֥ין צֶ֖דֶק יִהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֑ם אֲנִי֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־הוֹצֵ֥אתִי אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin.
I the Lord am your God who freed you from the land of Egypt.
Imagine yourself at a busy market 2000 years ago. You ask the shopkeeper to purchase one ehpah of flour. He agrees to the exchange and begins to weigh the flour out. The measurement would be done on a scale that had a one ephah weight on one side, and a large bowl on the other to be filled by the flour. Once the balance was level, you knew you had reached the proper measurement. What if the one ephah weight the shopkeeper was using was cunningly made to weigh less than an ephah? You would have been cheated, paying full price for less than you had agreed to!
It’s from this situation that we learn the true meaning of tzedakah. It is a mitzvah to have an “honest ephah,” but the hebrew is “ehpah tzedek,” a “tzedek” ehpah stone. All our weights and measures are to be “tzedek”.
Tzedakah is often translated as charity, though here we learn the true meaning: equality. If you say the stone is the weight of an ephah, then it is tzedakah for the stone to truly have that weight. If you say that someone is a human being, then it is tzedakah that they be given an equal opportunity to live up to their personhood. For those who need it, tzedakah helps to usher our fellow human being from poverty to basic human dignity. For those whose side of the scale is weighed down by haughtiness and greed, transferring some of the material goods to the other side raises them up. Giving tzedakah is not about giving charity. It is about balancing the scale.