We now have an answer to the age-old question. How can a man or woman, born of woman, a human being of flesh and blood, a human being filled with all sorts of good possibilities and less-than-good desires; a human being who is finite; who is only here for 70-80-90 years; a human being who commits mistakes, a few sins, and some crimes; how can such a being ever stand before the eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-just and righteous God? Only humans stand before God. How can anyone endure such an inferior-superior relationship?
We have the answer. The Rabbis in the Talmud give it to us. It is an answer that has been around for a very long time. We just have not paid enough attention to it. The thinking of the Rabbis begins with a verse in the Book of Mishlei (Proverbs) 19:17.
"Whoever shows favor, generosity, and kindness to the poor is making a loan to God. He will repay him what He (God) owes him." The Rabbis are utterly fascinated with this verse. They comment. It says in the Book of Psalms that God gives, that God feeds, that God sustains all life, animal life and human life. That means that inherent in the act of creation is the obligation to sustain the life created. The Rabbis continue, along comes a Jew and sees a person in need, naked, hungry, homeless, and clothes, feeds, and shelters this person. This generous person is snatching or stealing the mitzvah from God. Taking care of those created is the job of the Creator. The human who does that snatches the mitzva from God. Furthermore, the Rabbis say, if it were not written in scripture it would not be possible to say it, "because this is God's responsibility, and we human beings step in and take care of the needy, God owes us. God is in our debt. God is a borrower."
We become lenders to God. The task of a good Jew is to keep lending money to God so that God owes us more and more. When that happens, we read the second half of the verse. God owes us. God will repay that debt.
I've been thinking about this lately. It occurred to me that God owes a huge, massive debt-way into the hundreds of millions of dollars, possibly even more-to the Jewish United Fund Campaign. After all, who else in the city of Chicago takes care of as many hungry, needy, homeless people?! Who else takes care of as many hungry, homeless, needy Jews around the world; Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, Morocco, Israel, Yemen, et cetera?!
This idea that God owes us fits quite neatly into Judaism. It is an idea and a belief that should not surprise us. The moment God finished creating the world, God handed the world to us. We are God's custodians of this world. The entire Torah is based on this partnership between God and the Jewish people, and God and humanity. This is how our opening question is answered. The Jewish person and the Jewish people who come to stand before God do in truth acknowledge that God is the creator, just, righteous, all knowing, eternal, and beyond time and space.
Yet this very God, at the same time, if one dare say it, equalizes the relationship with us. God acknowledges that God is in debt to us. God acknowledges that God owes us. For whenever we give tzedakah, whenever we take care of the needy, we are making a loan to God. We are the lender. God is the borrower. So if you want to increase the amount that God owes you, give ever more tzedakah. And if you want to increase that by orders of magnitude and maximize the effectiveness of your tzedakah, give to the JUF Campaign. For no other campaign, for no other tzedakah, reaches as many Jews in as many places to address as many needs. When you do that you will be able one day to present God with an IOU, and on it will be written, "For your gift to the JUF Campaign."
Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is rabbinic scholar of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.