This week's parsha
The Philanthropic Pauper
Here's G‑d on the topic of charity:
Be careful lest a reckless thought enter your heart saying, "The seventh year, the year of cancellation [of loans] is approaching," and you look begrudgingly at your destitute brother and do not give him…Rather you should give him repeatedly, and your heart should not feel bad when you give to him. For as a result, G‑d, your G‑d, will bless all your work and everything you do... -- Deuteronomy 15:9-10.
To paraphrase: Even in tough times keep your hearts and pockets open for those who have less than you do.
This excerpt from G‑d's public address to our ancestors seems to be reflected in a Jewish teaching recorded in the Code of Jewish Law, which stipulates that: "Everyone is obligated to give charity. Even people supported by charity must contribute from what they receive."
This law seems radical on the one hand, and absurd on the other.
Radical in that it demands of a man so poor as to need handouts himself, to provide assistance for others in need. The pauper is obligated to become a philanthropist even as he himself is the subject of philanthropy!
And absurd in that effectively this law obligates the wealthy to provide the poor with enough money not only to live, but to give! If the pauper donates some of the donations he receives, he's left with less and automatically needs more.
This instance is but one example of Judaism's profound departure from conventional moral thought.
Your typical code of ethics would not only exempt the poor man from giving charity, it would forbid him from doing so, due to the fact that his "generosity" comes at the expense of his benefactor, and additionally because depleting his finances any further solidifies his dependency on support.
Besides, since when does giving charity qualify as one of life's necessities; so why include that in the rich man's moral obligation towards the poor?
It's here that the Torah redefines the thing we call charity.
The kabbalists teach that before creating our world, G‑d was looking to exercise and express His kindness. But you can't do charity with yourself; it's like taking money from one pocket and putting it in another.
So He created the world and its inhabitants in order to give, making us beneficiaries of the first known act of charity.
Apparently, then, man is a taker by birth.
Herein lays the novelty of the Biblical verse which tells that "G‑d created us in His image."
As He is essentially a giver, so are we.
While the reason we were created was in order to take, the manner in which we were created – in his image – leaves us with an inherent need to give. It's part of our spiritual and moral make-up. It's necessary if we want to keep up our (divine) image.
The moment we stop giving part of us stops living.
Giving then is not a luxury but a necessity of life. This is not about what we do; it's about who we are; it's part of our definition.
Reaching out, then, is really reaching in.
Consequently, since giving charity means providing a poor man's needs, and giving charity so happens to be one of them, denying him that necessity of life is like denying him life itself.
How wrong it would be to let a pauper lose touch with his inner self, even if only for a short period of time; and how right it is, then, to include in his aid-package the wherewithal to give charity.
Giving is what makes us tick, like nutrition, energy, and oxygenIn Judaism giving is not just a hobby, repaying a debt to society, or even just the good or right thing to do; it is, rather, part of what makes us tick, like nutrition, energy, and oxygen.
In ways it's even more than those, for they contribute to the physical part of us that comes and goes, while the charity and good deeds we do give birth to the part of us that lives on forever in the memories of our beloved, contributing to the collective human legacy of giving.
So although sometimes we are forced to take in order to live, giving is life itself.