Human nature is to desire to be self-sufficient. Most of us are uncomfortable being takers and prefer earning our own keep. If, due to dire circumstances, we find ourselves on the receiving end, our reaction is generally one of mortification.

The Torah is acutely sensitive to the precarious dynamic between patrons and their beneficiaries. The Torah's word for the act of giving to the needy, tzedakah, although commonly translated as "charity," more accurately means "justice." G‑d selects certain people as agents to disburse His bounty to others. Thus, when we are in a position to assist someone else, we are not behaving altruistically by giving away something that is rightfully ours. Rather, we are doing justice, by dispensing the money that G‑d entrusted to us in the way that He desires.

Although we generally associate the mitzvah of tzedakah with giving money, the mitzvah encompasses all forms of kindness. Tzedakah can be as basic as offering someone a lift or shlepping a friend's heavy load. Tzedakah can also take forms that are more "spiritual" — cheering up a friend who is depressed, or sharing your knowledge or insights with another. Whatever form it takes, the Torah regards preserving the dignity and self-respect of the receiver as a cornerstone of tzedakah. Accordingly, the great codifier of Jewish law, Maimonides (Rabbi Moses be Maimon, 1135-1204) formulated a list of eight levels of giving, correlating to the degree to which the giver is sensitive to the needs and feelings of the recipient.

Level Eight: Giving grudgingly, with a sour countenance.

Giving grudgingly is certainly better than not giving at all, and thus merits the eighth place on Maimonides' list. But this is the lowest of all forms of charity. This form of giving is ironically selfish — it is not motivated by true caring or love, but rather by a sense of guilt or obligation. True tzedakah is accompanied by warm words and gentleness.

Level Seven: Giving less than you can afford, but doing so pleasantly.

The benefit of a friendly response is so powerful that it even offsets the sting of an underwhelming donation. Even if you don't feel ready to commit yourself to meeting someone else's needs to the full extent of your capacity, you can express genuine interest and empathy. A sincere expression of caring can satisfy the person emotionally and give him the strength to go on, even if you weren't able or willing to grant his request completely.

Level Six: Giving generously, but only after being asked.

While it's certainly preferable to be proactive, at the very least, don't give a cold shoulder to those who approach you for help. You can never know just how laborious and awkward it was for them to ask you for a favor, and how desperately they are counting on you to respond graciously.

Our society tends to encourage us to say "no" to the demands and requests of others. We are made to feel like fools or wimps if we allow people to appeal to our soft nature. The Torah certainly does not advocate that we abrogate all personal boundaries and let others walk all over us. However, if we are honest with ourselves we can always find a way to fill the other person's need, or refer them to someone else who can.

Level Five: Giving before you are asked.

Learn to anticipate the needs of others even before they approach you. Don't wait for the self-destructive behavior or the cry for help before stepping in to lend a hand. Don't limit your involvement to those who appeal to you; seek out opportunities where you can make a difference.

Level Four: The recipient knows the giver, but the giver does not know the recipient.

In levels five through eight, the recipient and the giver are both known to each other. So even when the giving is done with utmost sensitivity and happiness to help, theirs is a relationship of superiority: the giver's ego is gratified, and the recipient feels shame and inferiority because of his dependency. This is partially rectified in the form of charity that occupies Level Four in Maimonides' list: the giving is done in such a way that the recipient is aware of the identity of his benefactor, but remains anonymous to him. In this case, the donor feels more humble, since he is not aware of to whom he is giving. However, the recipient's feelings are not spared to the same extent, since he knows who gave him the charity.

Level Three: The giver knows the recipient, but the recipient does not know the giver.

In this level of tzedakah — which is the converse of Level Four — the donor's ego has some room to express itself. Since the giver knows who is receiving his bounty, there is room for some sense of one-upmanship or dominance over the receiver. However, the beneficiary is unaware of who the donor is, and so his dignity is preserved.

(The fact that Level Three is higher than Level Four is proof of the Chassidic adage that we should take into account the other's benefit before considering the possible disadvantages to ourselves — in spiritual matters as well as material. While it is certainly important to avoid ego and arrogance wherever possible, it is more important to salvage the dignity of someone else.)

Level Two: Giving anonymously, where the recipient does not know the giver and vice versa.

Receiving mutually anonymous tzedakah takes much of the sting out of being on the receiving end. It is far better when we lend aid to others unconsciously — when we give ourselves over to others so completely that our egos merge with theirs, and neither is conscious of being in a superior or inferior position.

Thus, Jewish communities of all generations established charity funds, administered by individuals of supreme honesty and discreetness, who acted on a voluntary basis (with nothing deducted for "overhead") to collect and distribute funds to the needy in a way that facilitated this high level of tzedakah.

Level One: Helping someone become self-sufficient.

The most basic need of a human being is to feel needed and capable. Thus, the highest form of tzedakah is to help someone find a job or set them up in business. This preserves their dignity, and at the same time transforms them from being a recipient into one with the capacity to give to others. Similarly, if you are in a position to counsel or give advice to someone, it is important to instill in them confidence in their own ability to find solutions to their dilemmas, and even be a source of strength to others.

Our sages say "In the measure one metes out to others, so is meted out to him." In the course of our lives we face many situations when we are dependent on the kindness and generosity of others to make it through difficult times. The way we reach out to others when fortune is on our side will often determine how fate will treat us in our moment of need.

Tzedakah is actually a cycle — the gifts that we give to others will eventually return to us. Furthermore, G‑d is acutely tuned in to our small acts of goodness and kindness. Our acts of giving stimulate G‑d's blessings to shower down upon all of us, the giver and the receiver alike.