Growing up, I had always been inspired by big-name philanthropists—Rockefeller, Carnegie, Cooper, Bill Gates, etc. Now that I am coming closer to Judaism and meeting and learning about Jewish philanthropy, I realize that giving tzedakah is operating on a whole different level than just giving what and when one feels like giving. Still, I am not completely clear about the difference between giving what we feel, and giving that which we are obligated. Can you enlighten me?
Giving “what and when I feel like it” stems from a mindset that the money I earn is the product of my own efforts, and when I choose to give charity, I am going beyond my duty. I am being generous with that which is rightfully mine.
The Torah teaches otherwise. We believe that everything that we have is a direct blessing from G‑d. Those who have been granted the means to give were chosen by G‑d to be the givers, as opposed to others who, due to reasons known to the Creator Himself, were chosen to be the receivers.
Banking has always been a Jewish profession, and in truth, every Jew is a banker. I may have money in my pocket, but it was merely deposited with me—with the trust that I will manage it wisely. Some of the deposited money is for me, and some is for me to dispense. If I misappropriate funds, G‑d forbid, the Depositor might find someone else to handle His money (maybe even the money earmarked for me . . .).
With this in mind, it is understandable why Judaism requires that, if possible, we should give whenever we see someone in need. If, by divine providence, I was exposed to someone’s lack, it’s a clear indication that I can do something about it. We always have to give what we can: if not money, at least a smile and an encouraging word.
This is aside from the minimum ten percent (maaser) of our earnings which must be set aside for charitable purposes.
The difference between the two attitudes toward charity expresses itself in another area as well. If I feel that I am giving due to my personal generosity and munificence, then I am rightfully deserving of recognition and honor. And if the recipient has to pay a little with his dignity in order to benefit from my largesse . . . well that’s just par for the course.
If, however, I am just dispensing money, just discharging my duty, then a) it’s not a cause for ego inflation, and b) the recipient shouldn’t have to pay with his dignity. We’re both just partners in the Depositor’s cosmic investment plan.
Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson
P.S. Though I am emphasizing the Jewish view on tzedakah, please don’t interpret this as disparagement of others who give. Giving to a good cause is great in G‑d’s eyes whether the benefactor is a Jew or non-Jew, whether it was done with the proper intentions or not. Though the philosophy is important, it’s the actual giving that counts most!