Be Most Careful with This One
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim & Howard Salamon
Leading up to Rosh Hashanna, we reflect on self-improvement. Maimonides discusses a core mitzvah:
We are obligated to be careful with regard to the mitzvah of charity to a greater extent than all [other] positive commandments, because charity is an identifying mark for a righteous person, a descendant of Abraham, our patriarch, as [Gen. 18:19] states: “Abraham is beloved, because he commands his children in charity.” The throne of Israel will not be established, nor will the true faith stand except through charity, as [Isaiah 54:14] states: “You shall be established through righteousness.” And Israel will be redeemed solely through charity, as [ibid. 1:27] states: “Zion will be redeemed through judgment and those who return to her through charity.” (Gifts to the Poor 10:1)
How do we understand charity’s level of importance, while the Rabbis said, “Whomever denies idolatry is as if he kept the entire Torah, and whomever accepts idolatry is as if he rejects the entire Torah?” Idolatry, then, seems to define the core of Judaism, not charity.
“Charity is an identifying mark for a righteous person”
What is the greatness of charity, Abraham’s finest character as identified by God?
In charity, one recognizes another person as equal to himself: “He deserves what I have.” One does not view oneself greater than any other person. That is some level, considering how many people are out for fame and recognition. The lack of ego is also God’s praise for Moses: “And the man Moses was exceedingly more humble than all men on the face of the Earth” (Num. 12:3). Having seen more wisdom than others, Moses understood the greatest disparity between man and God. Based on this extreme contrast, Moses viewed himself as nothing compared to God. King David said “I am a worm,” Abraham said “I am dust and ashes,” and Moses said “I am nothing.” As Rabbi Israel Chait taught, King David felt he was lowly but still an animate being (worm). Abraham was on a higher level and looked at himself as inanimate, but still as matter (dust). And Moses being in the highest level viewed himself has nothing.
The greatest level of perfection is the person who leaves his emotions and follows intelligence and truth, following God, as dictated by reality. He abandons the strong emotion of ego and recognizes God’s will extends to all people. The perfect person follow’s God’s will, as God’s will is reality, while man’s will is selfish fantasy and self aggrandizement. This is the world in which most people live: the fantasy of the self reigning supreme over all others. Haman was so disturbed that—although everybody else bowed down to him—one person (Mordechai) didn't, and this destroyed his world. And Haman is not alone because he has the same faculties you and I have. We each have the possibility of following ego to this severe degree. But the path of Torah will keep a person in awe of the creator, and slowly remove him, year-by-year, from a self-centered life, towards the happiest life of becoming enamored by the continued brilliance he uncovers through Torah study. The greatest minds like kings David and Solomon could not get enough of God's brilliance, and wrote volumes on the wisdom they perceived. They were not the focus of their lives, God was. And Einstein instructed those of his university not to make a shrine of his office when he died, but to give it to the next person in line. Einstein's awe of the Creator placed his self importance in proper perspective.
Charity is the flip side of idolatry. Maimonides states this openly: “Anyone who turns his eyes away from [giving] charity is described as being rebellious like someone who worships false gods” (Gifts to the Poor 10:3). Whereas in idolatry the objective is the self—one desires to be favored by the deity (Rabbi Israel Chait)—charity is abandoning self-interests and helping others, as God desires happiness for all people.
God's creation of human beings is the greatest expression of God’s kindness. He cares that a being should exists that can attain a most fulfilling existence through realizing His wisdom. God is charitable to the greatest degree in His act of creating mankind. And we are to follow God and mimic this kindness through our charity. We act like God when we are charitable as He is.
Furthermore, Maimonides teaches that no one will suffer loss or any negativity through charity to the poor:
A person will never become impoverished from giving charity. No harm nor damage will ever be caused because of charity, as [ibid. 32:17] states: "And the deed of charity is peace." Everyone who is merciful evokes mercy from others, as [Deuteronomy 13:18] states: "And He shall grant you mercy and shower mercy upon you and multiply you." (Gifts to the Poor 10:2)
Moses told the Jews that charity earns one God’s blessings:
Give readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kin in your land. (Deut. 15:10,11)
It is a positive commandment to give charity to the poor among the Jewish people, according to what is appropriate for the poor person if this is within the financial capacity of the donor, as [Deut. 15:8] states: "You shall certainly open your hand to him." [Lev. 25:35] states: "You shall support him, a stranger and a resident and they shall live with you," and [ibid.:36] states: "And your brother shall live with you." (Gifts to the Poor 7:1)
Anyone who sees a poor person asking and turns his eyes away from him and does not give him charity transgresses a negative commandment, as [Deuteronomy 15:7] states: "Do not harden your heart or close your hand against your brother, the poor person." (Gifts to the Poor 7:2)
The most desirable way of performing the mitzvah is to give one fifth of one's financial resources. Giving one tenth is an ordinary measure. (Gifts to the Poor 7:5)