The Inner Essence of Mitzvat Hatzedaka

By Linda Pardes Friedburg

“…U’teshuva, u’tefilla, u’tzedaka maaviirin et roah hagzera.”
” …But repentance, prayer, and the giving of tzedaka mitigate the severity of the decree.”

This refrain from the machzor follows us throughout the period of the High Holy days, summoning us to action. Teshuva, tefilla, and tzedaka are presented as the three essential categories of spiritual endeavor, which can remove the blemish of past mistakes and draw down blessing for the coming year.

These mitzvot parallel the three manifestations of the Divine soul in each of us — machshava, dibur, v’maaseh (thought, speech, and action ) — as defined in Chassidic literature (Tanya, chapter 4). Moreover, they fall into three categories of relationship: between Man and himself, Man and God, and Man and his fellow.

While the emphasis on teshuva and tefilla seems natural for this period of reckoning and self-evaluation, I would like to explore the question of why the mitzvah of tzedaka was chosen by our Sages as the action wielding the greatest power to soften harsh decrees. Why was the mitzvah of honoring parents not chosen, or paying hired laborers on time, or any other positive commandment concerning our relationships with others?

Implicit in the choice of the mitzvah of tzedaka are two attributes which would seem to bond this mitzvah to the acts of teshuva and tefilla: a) the dearness of this mitzvah in “God’s eyes,” and b) its power to transform the Jewish soul and, consequently, our daily patterns of behavior.

Regarding the former quality, the Chafetz Chaim writes: “If we look into the Holy Writings, we find explicitly that, regarding behavior between people, His main desire is chesed, as it is written ‘Ki chafetz chesed hu’ (A desirer of chesed is He) and ‘Ki chesed chafatzti v’lo zevach’ (because I desired chesed and not sacrifices.)” (Amud HaChesed, Peh Kadosh, p. 1) In other words, the chesed we do with our fellow is dearer to God than acts of religious piety. Moreover, chesed between people is the trigger that “draws down” God’s chesed upon Man.

“This is the ultimate compassion; that no flaw or transgression…can withhold God’s continual goodness to man. So too, nothing in the world – no sin or improper act – should keep a person from giving to those who depend upon him.”
(R. Moshe Cordovero, Tomer Devorah, Chapter 2)

In a world riddled with misfortune, opportunities to do chesed abound. In the chapter from which most of the halachot of tzedaka are derived, the Torah suggests that in the present state of things, there will always be needy people among us: “…because the poor will not cease from the midst of the Land, therefore I command you saying, open, open your hand to your brother, your poor, your destitute in your Land.” (Devarim 15:11)
And why must this be?

Chesed is the basis of all Creation and every created being does chesed. For this reason, the Holy One, Blessed be He, created every being with something lacking – individuals and whole communities – so that they would be forced to fill their needs through their fellow and one being could complete the other…and that through both of them the world could be maintained. This is the intention of the bracha “Boreh nefashot rabot v’chesronan… lahachyot nefesh kol chai”, so that all would live together as a community and not in isolation, since each one’s existence would be dependent upon the other.
(Chafetz Chaim, Amud HaChesed, Peh Kadosh, p.11)

Being true to ourselves

Chesed is God’s desire, and clearly the dominant quality in His relationship with Man; His “Thirteen Attributes,” a recurring theme of the Yom Kippur service, are mostly expressions of Divine chesed. It follows that part of our essence, as God’s children, is the will to do chesed: “Shlosha simanim yesh b’umah zo: Rachmanim, Bayshanim, and Gomlei Chasadim.” “Three qualities are integral to this People: they are compassionate, bashful, and engage in acts of loving kindness.” (Yevamot 9) By placing emphasis on a chesed-related act during the High Holy days, our Sages are simply urging us to return to our essences, to listen to the natural yearnings of our souls to imitate God and inculcate kindness in the world.

The uniqueness of mitzvat hatzedaka

But why was the mitzvah of tzedaka in particular selected for emphasis during the High Holy days? On the one hand, the importance of this mitzvah is reflected in the generous rewards associated with it in our sources: “Tzedaka will save one from Death”, “Tithes are a fence to wealth” (Avot, 3:17) “Give a tenth so that you become wealthy” (Shabbat 11a)

The fact that the rewards of tzedaka are so great would suggest that, on the one hand, it is a challenge to give tzedaka in the proper manner, but also that the mitzvah of tzedakah is critical to our personal development and to tikun olam. Our Sages taught: “The poor person standing at the door does more for the householder than the householder does for the poor person.” (Vayikra Rabba 34:9)

The above source, and various other rabbinic teachings, seem to suggest that the reward for helping the poor is more than just monetary enrichment or protection from harm. By approaching us (would we have a chance to meet this person under any other circumstances?), the Ani challenges us to see beyond the physical qualities of a fellow human being and look for the Divine essence and purpose that binds us all. Our kindness to him reflects nothing less than our love for God and our confirmation of His wisdom.

“People are used to saying that the poor are lazy and it is more convenient for them to live off of others, who work by the sweat of their brow. But the truth is, they are not at all to blame for their sluggishness…
Our Sages say: There is a call from above that this person will be rich and that person will be poor. According to this decree, the one destined to be wealthy is given the attribute of quickness and ambition, so that he will not rest and will not tire from his toiling until he has acquired wealth. The person whose destiny is to be poor is granted from Heaven heaviness in his limbs and a lazy spirit, until the point where he will choose to eat stale bread and sleep on the ground rather than work hard. This is a curse from above and not his own evil intention, so we must have mercy on him and sympathize with his lot.
(Chafetz Chaim, Amud HaChesed, Peh Kadosh, p. 15)

When we treat the Ani with dignity and not resent him for his condition, we improve both his lot and our own. When we acknowledge that the world functions according to a specific Divine order, aspects of which we may not agree with or understand, we are better equipped to take part in its repair.

Relating properly to the poor

Halachic and midrashic sources indeed tend to focus much more on the “how” of giving tzedaka than on the “how much.” This is because the impact of tzedaka on the recipient and on ourselves is completely dependent upon how we perform this mitzvah.

The Torah entreats us: “lo te-ametz et levavcha v’lo tikpotz et yadecha m’achicha haevyon, ki patoach tiftach et yadcha lo…” “Do not strain/harden your heart or shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall (surely) open, open your hand to him…” (Devarim 15:7-12). The language of the Torah stresses not only the difficulty of doing this mitzvah with a whole heart, but also the fact that we “exert” our hearts when we hesitate to give! This is because our natural inclination (as a nation of rachmanim, bayshanim, and gomlei chasadim) is to do chesed, but we have been trained to dampen that impulse and regard the poor with suspicion. The Torah is reminding us here to base our behavior towards the poor on faith and knowledge of God’s ways, and not on societal norms.

On the words “patoach tiftach…”, Rashi elaborates – “even 100 times.” Our Sages reinforce this principle that our treatment of the Ani should cause him to want to return to our door, and not, God forbid, the opposite. For once the Ani does become a part of our household, we benefit even more than he does.

There will always be poor people, because we need them. We have only to acknowledge and actualize our interdependent relationship with them, which must always be on two levels: physical and spiritual, the latter being the more important.

“One who gives a coin to an Ani is rewarded with 6 blessings, but one who comforts him with words is rewarded with 11 blessings” (Baba Batra 9a) and one who does both is rewarded with 17 – the numerical equivalent of “Tov”!

Based on passages from Isaiah, the above teaching stresses, unequivocally, that the warmth and words of comfort with which we greet the beggar, in our homes or on the street, are more important than the money we give him.

For what will give more permanent benefit to the Ani — our five or even fifty shekels, or a renewed sense of hope and self-worth?

With happiness you can give a person life…There is no one to whom he can unburden his heart, so he remains deeply pained and worried. If you come to such a person with a happy face, you can cheer him and literally give him life. This is a very great thing and by no means an empty gesture.”
(R. Nachman of Breslav, Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom, #43)

Based on this teaching, the reward, “tzedaka tatzil memavet” – is simply “mida kneged midah,” measure for measure. We save a life, and we are given life in return!

(This is relevant, in particular, with regard to the more unsavory characters one might meet on the streets of New York. Even if we feel sure that the money we give him or her will go to alcohol or drugs, we can use our very small donation as an opening to talk to the person. We can let them know that they can pull themselves up, and that we believe in them! This requires less than a minute of our time and can make a difference in that person’s life.)

Conversely, insensitive behavior towards the Ani, no matter how much money we offer him, can have permanent, damaging effects. One example from the Talmud (Kiddushin, 81b) concerns an arrogant character named Plemo, who claims to have perfect control of his passions. The Satan decides to test him. While eating his final meal before the fast on Erev Yom Kippur (when our sensitivity towards others should be at its peak), Plemo is disturbed by the Satan at his door, disguised as an Ani. Plemo offers out a piece of bread and the “Ani” responds: “On a day like today, the whole world is inside and I should be on the outside?” When Plemo invites him in, the “Ani” intones, “On a day like today, everyone is seated at their table, and I should be alone?” And when Plemo sits the “Ani” at his table, the latter begins to cough and behave repulsively, everyone scolds him, and he “dies” right there in his chair(!)

This midrash describes quite succinctly the inner world of the Ani, and makes two points clear: a) that it is possible to “help” a poor person and kill him anyway by our behavior, and b) that the mitzvah of tzedaka is the easiest place for even a God fearing Jew to foul up.
And what if they are pretending?

The fact is, many of us resent the approach of “shnorrerim” not only because we misunderstand our essential need for contact with the poor, but because we suspect their authenticity. Such suspicion should not prevent us from treating the person in a civil and sensitive manner and giving them a small donation:

Our rabbis taught: One who pretends to have a blind eye, a swollen stomach, or a shrunken leg will not pass out of this world until he is afflicted with such a condition. If one accepts charity and is not in need of it, he will not pass out of this world until he comes to such a condition. (Ketubot, 68a)

In other words, if you do yours-if you receive the Ani “b’sever panim yafot” (with a pleasant countenance) and try to help him physically and spiritually – God will do His. Only God can see into the hearts of Man. On the other hand, if you behave cynically towards a beggar, the beggar has fulfilled his “role” but you’ve failed the “test.” You may also miss an opportunity that may never come along again:

“If we would only remember
that the person sitting next to us
may be the Messiah,
awaiting some simple act of human kindness,
we would soon learn to weigh our words
and watch our hands.
And if he does not reveal himself in our time,
it will not matter.”
(Danny Siegel)

We must not let our hearts be hardened. The way we give tzedaka is a litmus test of our Jewish character. It is a statement of our faith that no meeting between two people is by chance, and that we all have the power to fix souls, including our own.

One Saturday night several years ago, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, z”l, came out of his shul on New York’s Upper West Side and was approached by a black man, asking for a donation. “I’m so sorry, brother,” Reb Shlomo said to the man. “My Sabbath just ended and I don’t carry money on the Sabbath. It seems that I can’t help you tonight.”

“You already helped me,” replied the man to Reb Shlomo. “You called me brother.”

Some practical tzedaka tips for these confusing times:

When someone requests tzedaka at your door:

  1. Greet the Ani warmly, and invite him or her into your home. (NOTE: Most of the people who knock on your door are not out to rob your home or attack you physically. This whole article is based on the premise that we do more harm to ourselves, in the short and long run, by keeping the poor at “arm’s length.”)
  2. Always offer the Ani a drink and/or food.
  3. Look into the Ani’s eyes when they speak to you and listen attentively.
  4. Whatever amount of money or other assistance you offer, give it with a sympathetic smile and comforting words: Say that you hope that God will bless the Ani with a full recovery, a steady income, or whatever else he or she lacks. Encourage the Ani in whatever way possible.
  5. Accompany the Ani a few paces out the door, thank the Ani, and wish him or her all the best.

When someone approaches you on the street, follow points 3 and 4 above.

In either circumstance, if the Ani asks for more or behaves disrespectfully, do not become angry. Always leave the Ani with comforting words. And give with full confidence that God will return your donation manyfold. Because He will!

One who follows the above suggestions will be spared the feelings of guilt and resentment that often accompany these critical encounters. That person will have truly helped someone, and also sanctified God’s name in the eyes of any onlookers. I personally have had so many pleasant experiences with the people who come to our home – the conversations, the divrei torah, my children’s playfulness with the new visitor. The latter receives food and warmth, in addition to the expected donation, and everyone benefits.

If such an approach still seems difficult or awkward to some, remember that the credo of our People is naaseh v’nishma. The more we practice compassionate behavior with our mouths and hands, the sooner an understanding of the inner essence of tzedaka will enter our hearts. And its effect upon us will be no less transforming than the soulful acts of teshuva and tefilla.

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