It doesn’t take a Torah scholar to recognize that charity is a good thing. One could argue that mankind probably either came up with the idea before religion or would have come up with it eventually. Sure, if you have spare change when the beggar asks, then you give. Or you give because you got that raise and are feeling generous. But what about when things are tight? Or when you feel like you’ve given enough already, and then someone comes to you with an outstretched hand? Do you have to give away a portion of your corona virus stimulus check?
When Charity is Out of Place
This week’s Torah portion, Emor, might clue us in to some of those answers. Within the reading, there is a big section listing the mitzvahs of all the major holidays. Shabbat, Passover, counting the Omer, Shavuos. Then it all of a sudden starts talking about harvesting produce.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you must not completely harvest the corner of your field when you reap. You shall not gather the random ungathered stalks of your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and the convert. I am Hashem, your God. (Vayikra 23:22)
Immediately after this paragraph, the Torah goes right back to the holidays. Rashi comments on the odd order saying, “If one gives [tzedaka in this way] in the proper manner is considered as if he built the Temple and offered his sacrifices there.” The Rambam comments that the act of charity is so important the holiest festivals are incomplete without them, further saying the festivals aren’t about your enjoyment, but bringing enjoyment to others.
The Meshech Chochmah brings, what I feel is, the most important insight. Since the mitzvah is given within the festivals, he says that acts of kindness aren’t voluntary but religious obligations. Because even though a non-religious person might give charity, the behavior won’t stay consistent and will change to how it suits that person.
Bitachon and Charity
Giving charity seems to go against our own survival instincts. We work to make sure we’re secure. Someone else didn’t succeed at providing their own needs? It must be their fault. And if I’m struggling, I certainly can’t be bothered to help someone else. However, in spite of those outlooks, the Torah commands us to give.
When one pursues the character trait of bitachon (trusting in God), it in essence boils down to what do you believe is really running the world? God or something else. Rabbi Bachya ben Joseph ibn Paquda writes the following insight in the introduction of Sha’ar HaBitachon;
For if a person does not put his trust in God, he places his trust in what is other than God; and whoever trusts in what is other than God, God removes His providence from him and leaves him in the hands of whatever he trusted in.
If you decide that you are at the mercy of natural forces, then giving away your money is a nice thing to do, but you do so at your own risk. However if you strive to recognize (I say strive because trusting in God isn’t an on/off switch, it’s a skill to cultivate) that God is who is really running the show, then you know He will be there for you in what you need. At that point giving tzedaka becomes about gratitude and further building that trust. On top of that, you become the miracle you’ve been praying for, just for someone else.
But what about when times are tight and Hashem is really testing you? Just to get a little into the nuts and bolts of the halacha (law), we’re supposed to give a minimum of 10% of our income to charity (whether this is pre-household expenses or post-household expenses is a little up for debate.) Regardless, 10% is a hard thing to do. Especially given taxes, housing prices, cost of kosher food, etc. But if you’ve donated your 10% you’re done giving right?
Well, then we have the mitzvah, “Do not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your brother in need.” (Devarim 15:7) So if you’ve already given your 10% for the month and someone comes up to you asking for help, can you say “Sorry, I just Paypal’d Jewish Family Services, try me next paycheck”? The Rabbis say, no you still have to give. What a test of bitchon, right? How are we ever expected to make ends meet let alone get ahead if we’re obligated to give so much?
Give Till It Hurts?
A Rabbi I learn with told me an interesting idea. When he fundraises, every so often he’ll get a donation with a note to the effect of, “Whenever I am struggling financially, I know it is time to give tzedaka.” What an amazing sentiment! But then the Rabbi clarified for me, this isn’t voodoo. It’s not that giving when you’re in dire financial straits is the magic ingredient to become rich. It’s that when you give in that situation it has the most merit. Because to say you trust in God when everything is good and comfortable is nice. But when it is being challenged and things don’t look so good, and then you still act as if He runs the world, that’s when the rubber meets the road.
The Rabbi left me with one more idea. Apparently* the Lubavitcher Rebbe was asked, what is the right amount of tzedaka to give? To that the Rebbe responded, “One dollar more than you feel comfortable giving.”
Charity/tzedaka is among the highest mitzvahs a person can do. Whether it is money, time, attention, or services, it encapsulates the spirit of selflessness unlike any other act of kindness. It’s so essential that even those who rely on tzedaka are commanded to give tzedaka (though they aren’t obligated to give 10%). So, to let a portion go, the fruits of your labor, the produce of the time and so much effort, when you don’t know what is around the corner, elevates not just the world around you, but retroactively makes all the time spent at the office more holy. In fact, Rashi says that if you drop a dollar and you don’t realize it, and a poor person finds it, you’re blessed for it despite the fact you had no idea or intention that it happened. If that is true, now you can understand why he said doing the mitzvah of tzedaka properly is as if you built the Temple and did all the sacrifices.
*I said “apparently” because many stories and quotes are attributed to the Lubavitcher Rebbe that are not so easily confirmed.