For most of us, the failing economy has translated into worry and rhetoric. Though unemployment is up and many homes have been lost, most of us still have bread on our tables and Cable TV in our bedrooms. But there is one sector that is already feeling the pinch; I speak of charitable institutions.

Ask the treasurer of your local synagogue or charity, and you'll have all the evidence you need. Contributions are in the decline while the roster of needs continues to climb. Resources are dwindling, projects are being curtailed and members of staff are being laid off. Those who serve the neediest of society have a desperate need for more resources, yet they feel the crunch first. This makes sense. When our funds are low, we trim excesses. First to go are the charity pledges, then we downsize vacation budgets, and finally, luxury items and extracurricular activities.

The Talmudic sages asked, "If G‑d loves His children, why are they poor?" The problem with this way of thinking is that charity is really not a luxury; it is a necessity for both the recipient and the donor. The recipient needs the money and the donor needs to give it. If we want to survive this recession, we need to survive it together. We must provide for the poor.

To understand the real life benefit that charity offers in times of economic downturn, let us delve into the spiritual aspect of charity.

Transforming the Daled

The Hebrew letters Gimmel, Daled and Hei tell the tale of charity. The Talmud teaches that Gimmel and Daled represent the words "Gemol Dalim," bestow (to the) destitute. The form of the Gimmel is that of a straight vertical line with a foreleg extended forward and downward, in a walking pattern toward the Daled. The extended foreleg indicates a willingness to connect with and invest in the Daled. The form of the Daled is that of a person bent deeply at the waist, the poor man staggering under the weight of his burden. So forlorn is he that he even fails to notice his benefactor approaching. He is stripped not only of provision, but of hope itself.

Once the Gimmel meets and renders assistance to the Daled, the Daled is enriched. It accepts the Gimmel's extended hand and uses this vertical line to form the letter Hei. The Hei is, in effect, a Daled with an added vertical line on the left. The Hei stands with confidence on two full legs – no longer bent over, no longer burdened. He has found a friend. He has found hope. He is buoyed with confidence.

Turning a Daled into a Hei is to transform the world of the destitute. The recipient does nothing to earn our largess. He is not entitled to our help. But it is precisely because he is not entitled to it, precisely because we don`t owe it to him, that our action is endowed with meaning.1

Tzedek and Hei

The Hebrew word for charity is Tzedakah. The Jewish mystics explained that the word Tzedakah is comprised of the word Tzedek, which means justice, plus the letter Hei. Charity and justice are polar opposites; justice dictates that we are entitled to the money we earn and charity dictates that we share our hard earned money with the poor and convert the Daled into a Hei. Indeed, in order to give to charity we must put the Hei's of this world ahead of our sense of justice, our Tzedek. This is why you get the word Tzedakah when you append a Hei to Tzedek.2

A Deeper Perspective

When we find ourselves with extra money, we must remember that it is not ours to keepThe notion that justice dictates entitlement to money we earn reflects a secular form of justice. The Torah has an entirely different viewpoint. The Talmudic sages asked, "If G‑d loves His children, why are they poor?" The answer, so the wealthy would receive reward for giving Tzedakah. G‑d distributes His resources among humanity unevenly to give us opportunity to reap the rewards that come from providing for the poor. When we find ourselves with extra money, we must remember that it is not ours to keep. It was given to us to distribute to the poor. It belongs to them. To donate it is just, to keep it is theft.3

The word Tzedakah, or Tzedek plus Hei, represents the idea that Tzedek (justice) is served only when we fulfill our obligation toward the Hei, not when we consider ourselves entitled to our extra monies. Giving to charity is thus an act of justice, whereas withholding it is a perversion of justice.

A Necessity

We can now appreciate why charity, which is an obligation at all times, becomes a necessity during economic turndowns. This is not only true for the recipient, whose plight is more severe during a recession, but also for the donor, who requires blessing more acutely. As mentioned earlier, charitable contributions are catalysts for powerful reward - rewards that are not only spiritual in nature, but also monetary.

The Torah instructs us, "Tithe so that you shall prosper." The prophet Malachi promised that G‑d would "open the windows of heaven and shower us with blessing to no end." Our sages taught that in the merit of charity we are blessed with life, grace and abundance. Indeed, compassion toward others evokes Divine compassion toward us. In times of economic downturn, when we need G‑d's blessing more than ever, charity is not a luxury. It is a necessity.4

This is also why the Torah describes the giving of charity as "taking." When our ancestors were instructed to contribute toward the building of the Tabernacle, G‑d told them to "take for me a contribution." Take, rather than give, which reflects the Jewish belief that the donor receives far more than he gives. At times such as these, when we can use all the blessing we can get, charity is surely the way to go.5

Who Is The Hei?

But what if our families don't have enough? Do we not have to look after our own before allocating our hard earned dollars toward strangers? Does charity not begin at home?

When the discussion centers on a single piece of bread, and the question is whether to place it on our table or that of the stranger, our own family certainly comes first. Thankfully, we have yet to reach that point. When our families have the basic necessities, then the stranger does indeed come first.6