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Tzedakah Saves from Death

Tzedakah saves from death. – Proverbs 10.2

I’ve never been very comfortable with this verse from Proverbs, quoted in the Talmud to support the idea that the act of giving tzedakah can prevent the death of the giver. It implies that tzedakah has some kind of magical power and that we can use tzedakah in order to exert control over life and death.

As I was reminded all too painfully last week, even the most righteous and generous among us aren’t saved from death. But, as I mourn the sudden and tragic deaths of two people who gave tirelessly of themselves in the service of others, I am discovering a different meaning of this verse, and taking comfort in the power of tzedakah not to prevent death, but to respond to it.

Last Monday, I learned of the deaths of two remarkable individuals. One, Dr. Steven Steinberg, was the father of a close childhood friend. The other, Sonia Pierre, was an internationally recognized human rights leader whose projects are supported by American Jewish World Service, the organization for which I work.

I remember Steve from birthday parties and school events, from countless sleep-overs and study-nights at his house, from synagogue and from neighborhood picnics. I knew that professionally, as a cardiologist, he was constantly caring for others, but what I saw more often was how dedicated he was to caring for his family, his friends and his community.

I never met Sonia Pierre, but I heard her speak at AJWS’s 25th anniversary gala, and was awed and inspired by her integrity and commitment to improving the lives of Dominicans of Haitian descent through organizing, advocacy and education.

Both Steve and Sonia died suddenly and much too young—Steve was 60 and Sonia 48. As I struggled to make sense of their tragic deaths, I searched for something that I could do, some action that I could take to alleviate the pain and mitigate my feelings of powerlessness. So I did what I often do in response to death—I gave tzedakah. I gave to MUDHA, the organization Sonia founded to support Haitian migrants and their descendants in the Dominican Republic. And I gave to Beth Tfiloh, the synagogue and school community that, in my mind, is inseparable from Steve and his family. I feel comforted by the act of giving to these institutions that represent and reflect Sonia and Steve, knowing that I am keeping their memories alive and carrying out their visions and values.

Tzedakah won’t save any of us from dying. But, in my experience, tzedakah can save us from the overwhelming paralysis we experience when confronted with death. It can help us grieve and it can help us heal.


Lisa Exler is a senior program officer in the education and community engagement department at AJWS. In her four years at AJWS, she has developed and managed a range of educational materials that promote the values of global citizenship in the American Jewish community. Prior to joining AJWS, she taught third and fourth grades at the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan for three years. Lisa has a B.A. and an M.A. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University. Lisa can be reached at lexler@ajws.org

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