Rabbi Sacks on Charity Priorities

JInsider (March 2010)

Charles Dickens wrote an extraordinary book called Bleak House. And in Bleak House he has the picture of a really bad person called Mrs. Jellyby, who spends her whole life worrying about what you call the Borrioboola Indians, while failing to look after her own children.

So we’ve got this modern, crazy thing that we prefer a cause there because it’s further away and the further away it is, the more it speaks to us. Now, we do have a responsibility for Rwanda, for a Sudan, for everywhere that people are suffering. But the Rabbis did say, “Aniyeh ircha kodmim”, “the poor of your place, your community take priority.” And that is what you have to remember. It’s like the safety announcement on an airplane. They say, if oxygen is needed, oxygen masks will fall down in front of you. Please attach your own mask before attempting to attach the mask on the child sitting next to you.

We have to make sure that we are healthy before we can help other people become healthy. That’s why as Jewish donors, I think the first imperative is to make sure our Jewish life and its institutions are in good working order. And yes, we must reach out the hand of help to others. No one has said more about that than I have. I really do feel we need to help the poor throughout the world. That is the covenant of Noah, the covenant of global solidarity. But if we only give to non-Jewish causes, we will be like Dickens’ Mrs. Jellyby, who cares for the people a long way away, but not for her own children.