By Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, Past Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory.
WH Lecky remarks in his “History of European Morals”, 1877: “Simply to tell men what is virtue, and to extol its beauty, is insufficient. Something more must be done if the characters are to be moulded, and the inveterate vices eradicated” (vol. 1, page 292). This is why we need ritual: in order to be trained in the virtues which, if honoured in daily life, mould the human character and make the world a sanctuary.
There is one virtue above all others on which Masonic ritual and thinking lay great store. A Mason, it was said nearly three centuries ago, “is to be a Man of Benevolence and Charity, not sitting down contented while his fellow Creatures, but much more his Brethren, are in Want, when it is in his Power (without prejudicing himself or Family) to relieve them” (William Smith, “A Pocket Companion for Free-Masons”, 1735). Charity is so basic to Masonry that none of us can disagree with the old rabbinic commentary that if one performs charity it is as if he has carried out all the Temple ritual (Sifra to Lev. 23:22).
There are at least three different words for charity, each from a different language. “Charity” itself is from a Latin root meaning “dear”. In English it suggests something patronising – the “haves” conferring bounty upon the “have-nots”. A second word is “philanthropy”, from a Greek word for the love of mankind. It denotes goodwill towards others, both individuals and causes. A third approach is the Biblical one, where the Hebrew tzedakah really means righteousness. It involves monetary assistance but much more – generous attitudes as well as kindly deeds.
Tzedakah does not let you give in a superior, patronising spirit. It equates the one who gives and the one who receives, even exchanging their roles in the sense that he who gives is also blessed with the opportunity to be thoughtful and helpful. Tzedakah prefers you to give anonymously. You do not know who the recipient is, nor do they know you are the donor. You will get no votes of thanks, but you will know you did what was right. In the Jerusalem Temple, it is said, there was a Chamber of Secret Charity where God-fearing people deposited their contributions secretly and the needy were supported from it in equal secrecy (Mishnah Shekalim 5:6).
Tzedakah believes that how you give is important: “If a man were to give his fellow all the good things in the world but with a sullen face, it is as if he gave him nothing; he who greets his fellow with a cheerful face even if he gives him nothing, is as if he gave him all the good things in the world” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 13). A Russian novelist writes of a beggar who approached a man in the street and asked for alms. “I am sorry, brother,” was the answer, “I regret I have nothing to give you!” The beggar said, “I am quite content – you called me ‘brother’!”
This is the Biblical, and also the Masonic principle. We are siblings with a responsibility towards each other. So often the Bible uses the term “brother” where tzedakah is concerned: “If your brother has become poor”… “Let your brother live with you”… “Do not close your hand from your needy brother”…
William Smith, the 18th-century author I quoted above, spoke of a Mason “not sitting down contented while his Fellow Creatures, but much more his Brethtren, are in want”. We are all brethren, but some brothers and sisters are closer and some are not (yet) so close. We have a responsibility for them all, but it is natural to support closer brothers first. People criticise Freemasonry for its concern for fellow-Masons’ needs, but no-one can accuse us of leaving our charity there and not supporting human beings as a whole.
If we sum up the Latin, Greek and Hebrew concepts of charity, they all have their role in Freemasonry and in life. Nonetheless the Hebrew concept is the more comprehensive. It says, “Give – without fanfare. Give – with a smile. Give – with respect for the other. Give – and feel that you too have gained”. The idea that charity is broader than giving money but entails showing a nice face is not revolutionary: it has been around for millennia. But it would make all the difference if there were more niceness in the world, if people trusted each other a little more, if they went out of their way to improve the other’s situation, if they constructed a value-added society where everyone else mattered as well as yourself.
For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.
Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book on the history, symbolism and teachings of Freemasonry, enlivened with personal reminiscences and humour.