Social Action Aspects of Death and Mourning
Giving charity, time, and effort is a traditional and significant way of honoring the memory of one who has died.
Excerpted with permission from Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead, and Mourn as a Jew (Schocken Books).
Tzedakah--righteous giving--is a way to make memory tangible in the world. Giving money to organizations and causes that were important to the deceased keeps their beliefs alive and active. Tzedakah connects the living and the dead in the work of tikkun olam (repairing the world). "By performing [a] mitzvah on someone's behalf, we become that person's feet on earth." (Anne Brener, Mourning and Mitzvah)
Indeed, Jewish tradition views charity as the strongest force in the universe; even greater than death itself.
"Rabbi Judah used to say: Ten strong things have been created in the world. The rock of the mountain is hard, but iron cleaves it. Iron is hard, but fire softens it. Fire is powerful, but water quenches it. Water is heavy, but clouds bear it. Clouds are thick, but wind scatters them. Wind is strong, but a body resists it. A body is strong, but fear crushes it. Fear is powerful but wine banishes it. Wine is strong, but sleep works it off. Death is stronger than all, yet charity delivers from death. As it is written, "Charity delivereth from Death" (Proverbs 10:2)." -- (Bava Batra 10a)
Jewish folk tradition took this proverb literally; according to ancient belief, the dead spent 11 or 12 months being judged or atoning for sins in preparation for entry into Paradise. While in this state of limbo, tzedakah given in the name of the deceased was thought to hasten the redemption of the soul.
Mourners promise to give memorial tzedakah every time they recite the Yizkor prayer. The pledge reminds the bereaved of their obligation to the living, even when weeping for the dead. The rabbis warned against excessive mourning. Helping to repair the world is a way to translate grief into healing and justice, tzedek.
Jewish mourners give money to a wide variety of charities and organizations. Most people make gifts that reflect the values and interests of the person who died. Obviously, a person who volunteered and contributed to a particular organization, such as the United Jewish Appeal, or their synagogue, or the American Cancer Society, is honored by donations to "their" cause. By the same token, a passionate reader might be honored by supporting the synagogue library, the local public library, and literacy programs.
Mourners and guests who were moved by the clergy's eulogy or assistance sometimes send a check to the rabbi's discretionary fund, along with a thank-you note.