Rabbi Israel Chait
Rabbeinu Yona says that one who does not give tzedaka is a rasha, for he can’t perceive of tzedaka due to his inherent character. He cannot tolerate tzedaka and is thereby a rasha. But if one gives tzedaka, as Torah says it is proper, he is an intermediate person and not a rasha. He does not give tzedaka intrinsically, but only after being told to do so.
The greatest imperfection is one who relates improperly to his possessions. This explains a passage in tefilas Neilah: “So that we abandon the oppression of our hands and that we repent and perform the statutes of Your will with a complete heart” (Yom Kippurc losing Neilah prayer).
The last moment before Yom Kippur passes, we mention this theme. The worst sin is not overcoming one’s sense of possession.
The chassid, the pious man says, “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours.” He operates on a different level which is the underlying concept of tzedaka; the height of tzedaka.
Tzedaka forms the very core of Judaism. Wherever one looks in Torah one finds tzedaka:
For I have selected him, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is tzedaka and righteousness ... (Gen. 18:19)
God’s very first words to Abraham regarding the founding of the nation concerns tzedaka: the institution that is Judaism’s very essence and core.
And Rabbi Chiyya bar Rav of Difti taught, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha says: “Anyone who averts his eyes from the obligation to give charity, it is as if he engages in idol worship. It is written here concerning charity: ‘Beware that there be not a base [beliya’al] thought in your heart…and you will not give him’ (Deut . 15:9), and it is written there concerning idolatry: ‘Certain base [beliya’al] fellows have gone out’ (Ibid. 13:14). Just as there, in the latter verse, the word ‘base [beliya’al]’ is referring to idol worship, so too here [regarding abstention from charity] this expression [beliya’al] indicates a sin equal to idol worship” (Kesuvos 68a).
Why is an uncharitable person considered an idolater? He’s a metaphysician, he believes in God, he has knowledge! You would not think such a person is on par with an idolater. Maimonides explains why this is so at the end of his Guide (book III, chap. liv):
Thus, says the Lord, “Let not the wise man glory in his [moral] wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches. But let him that glorifies himself glory in this: that he understands and knows Me, for I the Lord act with kindness, justice, and tzedaka in the world; for these I desire,” declares the Lord. (Jer. 9:22,23)
Knowledge of God means that one possesses knowledge of the total realty; he understands the source of all reality as far as he is capable. He is related to God. In this matter, a person can feel proud. This pride is not egoism. It is the one healthy pride permitted to us. This pride is where one realizes his place in the universe, which is tied to the greatest humility. This is because once a person realizes his place in universe, he is filled with the greatest humility. “...for I the Lord act with kindness, justice, and tzedaka in the world; for these I desire,” declares the Lord.
Maimonides says, [God says], “as I am, so should you be” [mah Ani, af atah]. This means that if a person perceives God’s character [middos Hashem], his own charitable acts should be a natural result. One should give tzedaka because God gives tzedaka. One understands that this is the underlying system of the universe and the scheme of creation. Once a person understands that, his meager positions are worthless. That is why tzedaka is the mark of an individual’s level of perfection. If one possesses all other perfections but not tzedaka, it is worthless. He is a fraud because he may have intellectual knowledge, and he might be a great scholar and rav, but it’s all worthless, because without giving tzedaka the person does not believe in what he is saying. His emotions don’t follow his mind. Tzedaka is the barometer of perfection.
Why does the Gemara equate the uncharitable person to an idolater? This is because his idea of God must be distorted. Torah holds of a psychological principle: If one harbors a bad trait and does not break it, his mind must become distorted. It is impossible to quarantine a bad trait where it will not affect the rest of one’s personality and intellect. Why did Chazal prohibit the study of metaphysics until one excels to a great level? It is because one cannot obtain knowledge while harboring emotional distortions. Here, Judaism disagrees with the world’s educational institutions which have no demand for prerequisite intellectual training or prerequisite character perfection. One cannot be a great metaphysician while partaking of poor character. Poor character must affect one’s mind; it is impossible otherwise. This is a foregone conclusion in Judaism. This is why we are prohibited from reading the writings of flawed personalities. This is why the rabbis wrote Pirkei Avos. Without perfection, all areas of study will be distorted. Maimonides says that one can study Torah, but if he has the wrong idea about God, he has no portion in Olam Haba [the afterlife]. Tzedaka is the barometer [of perfection]. If one gives, then his ideas about God are true:
“...for I the Lord act with kindness, justice, and tzedaka in the world; for these I desire,” declares the Lord.
That refers to metaphysical knowledge. Judaism’s metaphysician is not limited to the intellect, but to metaphysics regarding God and how He relates to the world. Judaism’s metaphysician will follow the principle of imitating God— “as I am, so shall you be”—and he will give tzedaka because he is in line with God’s will to be charitable. But if one’s idea of God is corrupt [as he does not give tzedaka] he is akin to an idolater, for the definition of idolatry is harboring a wrong notion about God. If one’s idea of God is correct, he would have to copy God; it is a natural result. Maimonides says, “The perfected individual emulates God and acts towards the creatures [people] as God does.” Meaning, just as God does not act out of selfishness [as God is bereft of all emotions] and God’s actions are purely in terms of His wisdom, so too an individual must remove himself from his emotion of selfishness and operate on a broader perspective of sustaining the species, acting out of kindness for others apart from himself [his own emotional desires] and apart from his own interests. But as long as one is tied to his self-interests like selfishness, self-recognition, and money, he is not functioning in a way similar to God but on an instinctual plane. Whereas God is completely removed from any instinctual activity.
And you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy (Lev. 11:44)
How are we holy like God? This is achieved by acting without any instinct, acting purely objectively. When operating under this framework of kindness, one performs a different type of kindness. This is why the mishnah discussing the 4 traits of man—Avos 5:10—commences with the discussion of man’s possessions, for this is the area of perfection: tzedaka is the barometer of perfection. In fact, the only mitzvah where God says one can test Him is tzedaka:
Please test Me in this said the Lord of Hosts. I will surely open the storehouses of heaven and empty out for you a blessing that is more than sufficient ( Malachi 3:10).
This means that God returns one’s tzedaka tenfold. Chazal say that one cannot perform a mitzvah just to receive a reward, but in tzedaka it is permissible. This is because if it is performed properly, it means God has to return the kindness because God is the source of all kindness, of all tzedaka.
Why is the idea of tzedaka the most paramount and the most basic idea in Judaism?
It is because tzedaka runs contrary to a very strong type of thinking: “hedonistic logic” as I would call it. Hedonistic logic tells you that if you give something away, you are losing. And you cannot show that to be wrong. But the essence of Judaism is that this type of logic is absolutely false. Beyond the hedonistic reality is a greater reality. If one is not in line with that greater reality he is simply not in line with Judaism. He denies the whole basis of Judaism, which is that a reality exists beyond the physical and instinctual reality that man perceives sensually. [God’s promise above of abundant wealth for giving tzedaka overrides the hedonistic mathematical logic.] When one gives tzedaka it is not a loss, but a gain, because now he is in line with God. [The physical world is governed by laws that God created, controls and alters through His providence. All miracles in Torah convey this message, as does this promise of wealth if one tests God in tzedaka.]
Who is the chassid, the pious individual? The Gemara says that Yoav ben Tzaruya had no concept of possession. They say his home was “in the desert.” But would such a prominent person live in the desert? In actuality it means that his home was “like” a desert, where anyone could just walk in. [Yoav ben Tzaruya did not act like an owner regarding his home, but it was as publicly accessible as is the desert.] This is the very nucleus of Judaism. The chassid views other creatures just like God views them, but in a human manner. He views others with total objectivity and understands that they must operate with the institution of possession, since they cannot survive otherwise. That is, people must have an outlet for their egocentricity [which is expressed in ownership]. The chassid’s personality is “what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours.” He is above that concept [of ownership]. He gives tzedaka like God. His possessions are not “his” in his eyes. (One must reciprocate good done for him and be charitable and perform kindness first, to those who showed him kindness.)
The Gemara says that if one does not give tzedaka, God takes that money from him. He may not even know how God does this. But despite this [God taking it from him] it is still considered as if he gave tzedaka. This is because through losing his possessions and his realization that his loss was due to his failure to give tzedaka, it is considered tzedaka because the person broke his emotion [his attachment to money, through recognizing his flaw].
Very few people give 10% tzedaka; it is a difficult mitzvah. I know only a handful of people who fulfill the mitzvah. And it is unrelated to one’s financial status. If one does not give tzedaka when he is poor, he will not give when he is rich, and vice versa. It [generous character] is a personality trait, a perception. Maimonides says that no one becomes poor by giving tzedaka. A person will say, “If I had $10 million, I would give $1 million to tzedaka.” But he says this now only because the money is presently not his. But the moment it is his, he can’t give it away.
The Gemara says that tzedaka is performed with one’s money, but kindness is greater since it is performed with one’s money and one’s body [actions]. Any person who gives tzedaka because of the true reason must be on the highest level. This perfection is related to knowledge of God. God is the creator of the entire universe and what He gives is pure kindness and not to satisfy any emotion [as He has no emotions]. Abraham gave Malchitzedek tzedaka, for he was a priest to God:
And King Malchitzedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High. H e blessed him, saying, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your foes into your hand.” And [Abram] gave him a tenth of everything. (Gen. 14:18-20)
Malchitzedek had a yeshiva where he taught true ideas. That was Yeshivas Shame v’Ever.