Essays Print
The Spirituality of Charity by Miriam Biber
The Spirituality of Charity by Miriam Biber

Volume 5 , Issue 1

The Torah instructs us over and over again and in a variety of ways to be responsible for, and take care of each other. In Parshat Kedoshim, we are commanded ?Thou shall love they neighbor as thyself.? (Lev. 19: 18) Rabbi Akiva elaborates on this, saying that this is a fundamental mitzvah of the Torah. The Chinuch, in his explanation of the 613 mitzvot, explains that Rabbi Akiva's statement refers to the fact that many of the mitzvot depend on, and are subsumed within, this mitzvah. As the Chinuch writes, ?Thus, a person who loves another as himself will not steal from him, will not commit adultery with his wife, will not cheat him of goods or oppress him with words, ? and will not harm him in anyway (Volume 3, Sedra Kedoshim).

The Rambam similarly explains that this mitzvah encompasses many mitzvot. ?It is a positive mitzvah to visit the sick, console the mourners, attend to the dead, to dower the bride, escort one's guests ? Though all these mitzvot are a matter of Rabbinic ordinance, they are, nevertheless, embraced in `But thou shall love they neighbor as thyself.'? (Originally written in the Rambam's Mishnah Torah, Shoftim, Hilkhos Obel, 214, 1, but quoted in Chavel's The Commandments, Vol 1, p.221)

We are further instructed in Parshat Re'eh, not to neglect our fellow Jew:

If there be among you a needy man, one of thy brethren within any of they gates in the land which thy God has given thee, thou shall not harden thy heart, nor shut thy hand from thy needy brother, but thou shall surely lend him sufficient for his needs ?

Deut. 15: 7‑9

From this, we derive the mitzvah of giving tzedakah, charity.

Harmony and Peace

On one hand, the necessity for this set of mitzvot is somewhat obvious. They are necessary for communal functioning. ?The root reason for the mitzvah is known,? writes the Chinuch, ?for as a person treats another, so will the other treat him: and with this there will be peace among human beings.? (Sefer HaChinuch, Parshat Kedoshim) In other words, by instructing each individual to be considerate of others, harmony and peaceful coexistence within society is ensured. Similarly, the mitzvah to take care of the needy, ensures that all of the members, including the sick, the poor and the less privileged of the community will be provided for.

Yet these mitzvot commanding us to love our fellow Jew and take care of our ?brothers? clearly go deeper than merely ensuring communal tranquility. As with all of the mitzvot, these mitzvot, which guide our relationships between man and man, also have a spiritual purpose or function. In fact, the Torah tells us of some of the spiritual accomplishments which can be achieved through giving tzedakah and performing acts of kindness. For example, we are told that ?Israel will be redeemed only by means of charity for it is written: `Zion shall be redeemed by justice and those that return to her with tzedakah.'? (Code of Jewish Law, Chap 34, and Is. 1:27) Similarly, we say in our Rosh Hashonah prayers that ?Repentance, prayer and charity avert the severity of the decree.? What is it about the mitzvah of tzedakah and helping a fellow Jew that makes it such a powerful spiritual tool?

We can get some insight into this question by looking at what the Code of Jewish Law (Shulkhan Oruch) says about the mitzvah of tzedakah. The Shulkhan Oruch explains that the portion of our earnings which we are commanded to give to tzedakah is not really our money. This is money which actually belongs to the recipient of the tzedakah. God has given it to us to keep and safeguard until we give it to the recipient of the tzedakah, who is its rightful owner. We are merely trustees of the money, executors of God's estate, so to speak.

Why Not Give Money Directly?

If that is the case, then the obvious question is, why doesn't God just give the money directly to the person to whom it rightfully belongs? Why does God take this circuitous, indirect route of first giving it to one person and relying on that person to give it to another? A more expedient method would be to give it directly to the needy individual. There must be a spiritual benefit for the giver of the tzedakah. That person must somehow grow through the act of giving the money away.

The Shulkhan Oruch provides us with some answers, which apply specifically to the mitzvah of tzedakah, as well as to the other mitzvot pertaining to helping others. Giving to other people helps us appreciate our ultimate dependence on God. At any given time, circumstances might be such that a particular individual is in a position to give generously to tzedakah. However, given that material wealth is a blessing from God, God could decree that this person or the latter's? descendants might be in a position where he is? dependant on others (God‑Forbid). One can never know what his future might bring. This perspective helps increase our awareness that all of us, both the rich and the poor, the privileged and the less privileged, rely on God, and that since it is out of our control, our stations in life could change quickly.

Besides reminding us of our dependence on God, the mitzvah of tzedakah and loving a fellow Jew, which includes the acts of kindness discussed earlier, helps us empathize with the pain and suffering of others. God made human nature such that we do not intrinsically or naturally know what it is like to be in someone else's situation. We see the world based on our own experience and assume that everyone else shares a similar perspective. To see life through someone else's experience requires sensitivity and humility. We have to ?shrink? ourselves, make our own needs small in order to experience someone else's needs or feel their pain. God asks us to transcend our human nature and to emulate Him. Just as God listens and responds to our prayers for help and sustenance, so too we need to listen and respond to each other's needs.

Sensitivity to Others

The mitzvah of tzedakah not only helps us feel the pain of others, but also teaches us how to be sensitive to other people's feelings. Not only are we instructed to take care of the needs of our brethren, we are also told to do it in a way which does not compromise the integrity of the recipient. The Code of Jewish Law describes the most ideal form of charity as one in which the giver does not know whom the recipient is and vice versa. In this way there will be no residual feelings of humiliation or self‑ aggrandizement on either side. Similarly, the Code of Jewish Law says that it is better to help somebody become self‑sufficient, such as by providing the person with the means to earn a livelihood, rather than to just give him charity.

Responding to the needs of others also helps us appreciate how much God has blessed us. Really experiencing the troubles of others,? helps us become aware of all of the blessings which God has bestowed upon us. One, for example, does not usually think to thank God for his kidneys until he has been to the hospital and spent time with someone whose kidneys are not functioning.

Putting Aside Our Needs

And then there is a paradoxical aspect to these mitzvot. The mitzvah to love another Jew or to give tzedakah demands that we put aside our own needs, and not think about ourselves. Yet ironically enough, it is through this process of not thinking about ourselves and not focusing on only what is good for us, that we end up feeling happier and better about ourselves. There is a ?therapeutic? aspect to this mitzvah. When feelings of inertia, self‑pity or sadness begin to creep into our awareness, the Torah (as well as psychological theories of well being) suggests that we reach out to others. The process of physically doing what these mitzvot require, to feeling someone else's needs and so on, can pull us out of our own inertia and feelings of gloom. The same holds true in the emotional and spiritual realms. When we ?exercise? our emotional and spiritual capacities we end up feeling better.

We now find ourselves in the month of Elul, the eve of the New Year. As a preparation for the new year, it is customary to intensify the three areas of service to God: Torah, Prayer and Acts of Kindness. Special emphasis is placed on giving tzedakah. We hope that just as we take care of our fellow Jews' needs, by increasing our acts of charity, so, too, will God act graciously and benevolently towards us and take care of all of our needs in the coming year. May we all be inscribed and sealed in to the Book of Life.

The author is a staff psychologist at a day treatment program for emotionally disturbed children in the New York metropolitan area.



All Rights Reserved(c) The Jewish Review, Inc., 1987-2011