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The Philanthropic Pauper

The Philanthropic Pauper


Here's G‑d on the topic of charity:

Be careful lest a reckless thought enter your heart saying, "The seventh year, the year of cancellation [of loans] is approaching," and you look begrudgingly at your destitute brother and do not give him…Rather you should give him repeatedly, and your heart should not feel bad when you give to him. For as a result, G‑d, your G‑d, will bless all your work and everything you do...—Deuteronomy 15:9-10.

To paraphrase: Even in tough times keep your hearts and pockets open for those who have less than you do.

This excerpt from G‑d's public address to our ancestors seems to be reflected in a Jewish teaching recorded in the Code of Jewish Law, which stipulates that: "Everyone is obligated to give charity. Even people supported by charity must contribute from what they receive."

This law seems radical on the one hand, and absurd on the other.

This obligates the wealthy to provide the poor with enough money not only to live, but to give!Radical in that it demands of a man so poor as to need handouts himself, to provide assistance for others in need. The pauper is obligated to become a philanthropist even as he himself is the subject of philanthropy!

And absurd in that effectively this law obligates the wealthy to provide the poor with enough money not only to live, but to give! If the pauper donates some of the donations he receives, he's left with less and automatically needs more.

This instance is but one example of Judaism's profound departure from conventional moral thought.

Your typical code of ethics would not only exempt the poor man from giving charity, it would forbid him from doing so, due to the fact that his "generosity" comes at the expense of his benefactor, and additionally because depleting his finances any further solidifies his dependency on support.

Besides, since when does giving charity qualify as one of life's necessities; so why include that in the rich man's moral obligation towards the poor?

It's here that the Torah redefines the thing we call charity.

The kabbalists teach that before creating our world, G‑d was looking to exercise and express His kindness. But you can't do charity with yourself; it's like taking money from one pocket and putting it in another.

So He created the world and its inhabitants in order to give, making us beneficiaries of the first known act of charity.

Apparently, then, man is a taker by birth.

The moment we stop giving part of us stops livingHerein lays the novelty of the Biblical verse which tells that "G‑d created us in His image."

As He is essentially a giver, so are we.

While the reason we were created was in order to take, the manner in which we were created – in his image – leaves us with an inherent need to give. It's part of our spiritual and moral make-up. It's necessary if we want to keep up our (divine) image.

The moment we stop giving part of us stops living.

Giving then is not a luxury but a necessity of life. This is not about what we do; it's about who we are; it's part of our definition.

Reaching out, then, is really reaching in.

Consequently, since giving charity means providing a poor man's needs, and giving charity so happens to be one of them, denying him that necessity of life is like denying him life itself.

How wrong it would be to let a pauper lose touch with his inner self, even if only for a short period of time; and how right it is, then, to include in his aid-package the wherewithal to give charity.

Giving is what makes us tick, like nutrition, energy, and oxygenIn Judaism giving is not just a hobby, repaying a debt to society, or even just the good or right thing to do; it is, rather, part of what makes us tick, like nutrition, energy, and oxygen.

In ways it's even more than those, for they contribute to the physical part of us that comes and goes, while the charity and good deeds we do give birth to the part of us that lives on forever in the memories of our beloved, contributing to the collective human legacy of giving.

So although sometimes we are forced to take in order to live, giving is life itself.

Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson is the rabbi of Beit Baruch and executive director of Chabad of Belgravia, London, where he lives with his wife, Chana, and children.
Mendel was an editor at the Judaism Website—, and is also the author of the popular books Seeds of Wisdom and A Time to Heal.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Anonymous Belton September 1, 2016

Worth reading Great insights Reply

Anonymous July 14, 2014

wonderful! what's the source for this? It is part "What the Rebbe Taught Me," would love to look up original. Thanks Reply

Яаков Vancouver, Canada August 15, 2012

Charity I try giving a little... Reply

sleeper3651 KC, MO August 8, 2010

charity is love G-d is love, love is expressed through charity more accurately than through affection. Reply

Anonymous sheffield, england August 6, 2010

Today this article gave me a lift after a down day yesterday.
Thank you. Reply

Anonymous Brookhaven, NY August 5, 2010

charity My rabbi taught me that it is important to leave the edge of your farm open to the poor so that they can pick some of your crops and eat. This is a nice thought.
The problem is that some people only contact you when they need money and that can hurt your feelings. There has to be some incentive other than money, for people to get together. Reply

W.E. Moellmer SLC, Ut. August 5, 2010

Charity It seems to me that G*d is always charity, providing everything for everyone, always. Is it not man who takes this charity and hoards it, doling it out when he sees fit? Reply

Anonymous August 5, 2010

I needed to hear this I needed to hear this. Reply

Susan Chicago August 5, 2010

Dignity versus compassion Charity, Christian-American style has historically created a hierarchy between the giver and the recipient, a responsibility tinged with paternalism. No better way to restore the dignity of the recipient than for everyone to know that he must give, too! Reply

Your fan in Hawaii New Haven, Ct August 5, 2010

swell Splendid, great content with an even greater delivery. Reply

Shalom Freedman Jerusalem, Israel August 1, 2010

Yishar Koach This seems to me a profound truth. The capacity to give, to help others is essential to our walking in the ways of G-d. The effort to ensure that even the poorest do not lose this gift is the effort to ensure that they retain their own sense of being created in Tzelem Elokim (in the image of G-d). Reply

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