Unhappy Giving

I have a confession. I can’t stand to be thanked for giving charity. I just hate it when the person to whom I gave a dollar heaps lifelong blessings on me. I usually make a dismissive gesture, wait till they walk away, heave a small sigh of relief and return to my routine.

Until recently, I never bothered to think about how this might make the other person feel. I know why I reject the compliment. I feel that I don’t deserve praise for doing what every human being ought to do. But the poor fellow who offered the compliment has no idea why it was rejected. I might have given a dollar, but in the exchange I might also have crushed a spirit. Is it still a mitzvah?

Technically, the answer is yes. Charity is about giving to the poor, and whether I showed friendship or crushed a spirit, the recipient received money. But every mitzvah has a body and a soul. I might have given the mitzvah its body, but I robbed it of a soul. The soul of charity is to share love and concern. In other words, charity should be given with heart.

Speaking of charity, the Torah states, “Do not harden your heart or shut your hand against your brother the destitute. Rather you must open your hand repeatedly.”1 Note that the Torah begins with the exhortation against hardening our hearts rather than closing our hands. Though the commandment is to open our hands repeatedly, for charity is technically about the physical gift, there is much more to charity than physical giving. It begins with the heart, for true giving is from the heart.

Why is the heart central to this mitzvah?

The Bond of Brotherhood

It is easy to proclaim a feeling of concern for the destitute. We cluck our tongues and make sympathetic noises before moving on to the next point in the conversation. But true feeling cannot stop at the mouth—it must find expression in the hands. A feeling not translated into action is not a genuine feeling. Conversely, giving without feeling doesn’t create a bond. It fails to remind donor and recipient that they are brothers. Forging this bond is the essence of charity, which is perhaps why the Torah repeatedly emphasizes that the destitute is our brother.

Bridging a Spiritual Divide

On a deeper level, we can explore charity as a mitzvah that dramatizes the transformation of the spiritual and intangible into the physical and tangible. A donor who hears of a poor person’s plight is moved to sympathy and a desire to help. Sympathy and concern are intangibles that have no bearing on the real world unless they are given physical expression. They are dramatic and intense, but they are emotions. When one finds a way to channel this emotion into concrete aid for the poor, the spiritual becomes a physical reality. In this way, charity presents us with a clear crossroads between the spiritual and physical worlds.

Another point about charity is that no matter how generously one gives, the act of giving never captures the full grandeur and intensity of the donor’s concern. No matter how much is given, the emotional depth is always greater.

This is all reflective of the way in which G‑d created our world. Before creation, there was only a desire on G‑d’s part to create. The desire did not create a physical world; it was merely a desire. G‑d then decided to give His desire expression, and chose to create.

At first, creation took on a spiritual expression through the myriads of metaphysical lights and energies that G‑d radiated forth. But G‑d was not satisfied with these lights, because He wanted a physical universe. To create the physical, G‑d crossed the divide between the intangible and the tangible. In order to do this, G‑d dimmed the intensity of His radiance to make space for the physical.

The two things that are true of charity are thus also true of creation. First, the spiritual desire was not given concrete expression until G‑d made the decision to cross the divide. Second, the physical universe that emerged did not capture the infinite and exquisitely radiant lights that were present before creation.

The Pillar

We can now understand the well-known maxim that charity is one of the pillars on which the world stands.2

Chassidic philosophy teaches that every day, every minute and every second, G‑d makes a decision about continuing the act of creation. He decides whether to extend the act that channels spiritual energy into physical reality, or remain on the other side of the divide.

Similarly, every time G‑d grants us a blessing, He decides whether the flow of blessing will cross the divide into physical reality and take concrete form in our lives, or remain in spiritual form to be enjoyed by our souls.

When we give to charity, we make the same decision that we ask G‑d to make when we beseech Him for life and blessing. And the more often we translate our intangible emotions into tangible giving, the more often G‑d showers tangible blessing upon us and our families. The more often we give, the more determined G‑d is to continue the act of creation.

Charity is a pillar of creation because it gives us the opportunity to create. Whereas before there was only kindness, now it has become an action; it has assumed physical form. When we decide to cross this divide and translate our spiritual energy into physical giving, G‑d does too. In other words, our charity stimulates a corresponding charitable impulse within G‑d.

This is true, however, only when our charity reflects a charitable emotion. When the act of giving is done without feeling, we may have technically provided for the poor, but we have failed to bridge heaven and earth. We have failed to engage G‑d on the highest levels, and thus failed to stimulate a spiritual flow that results in blessing for ourselves and for the world.

This is why giving from the heart is crucial. This is why it is so important to communicate joy when giving to the poor.3 And this is why I resolve to smile and accept any compliment I am given for my charity.4