“His [God’s] tzedakah endures forever.” As I read these words from Tehillim, I picture King David with his harp, composing these words, feeling fully elevated, recognizing that God is all-giving all the time, eternally, the ultimate example of tzedakah, of righteous giving.1
At some point in life, we all learn that money comes and goes; you can be up one day and down the next. It’s all in the hands of Hashem. So the deeper way to conceive of money in our lives is that you only own that which you give away, as it says in Mishlei (Proverbs), “There is one who gives generously yet ends with more.” This means that by focusing on what you can give instead of what you can receive, you actually turn yourself into a vessel for receiving. This is all seen through the power and kabbalah of tzedakah (charity).
In this parashah of Re’eh, we read:
כִּֽי־הְ’ בְךָ֨ אֶבְי֜וֹן … לֹ֧א תְאַמֵּ֣ץ אֶת־לְבָבְךָ֗ וְלֹ֤א תִקְפֹּץ֙ אֶת־יָ֣דְךָ֔ מֵאָחִ֖יךָ הָאֶבְיֽוֹן. כִּֽי־פָתֹ֧חַ תִּפְתַּ֛ח אֶת־יָדְךָ֖ ל֑וֹ
When there will be a poor person amongst you.. do not tighten your heart and do not close up your hand in front of your poor brother. Rather, open your hand to him…2
In last week’s Dvar, we covered the Arizal’s teaching that Creation came about because Hashem has a fundamental desire to give.3 Therefore, the natural state of being is one in which chesed— the bounteous and unlimited influx of Hashem’s kindness– flows freely into the world, unhampered by either sin or dinim (judgment). We, nevertheless, find ourselves in a world that is not completely chesed, because part of Hashem’s desire is to give us the opportunity to sweeten judgment (Hamtakat Hadinim) with tzedakah, to transform dinim into chesed ourselves, emulating God in His ability to give to others.
There is a royal dynasty included in the ruins of the “Tomb of the Kings” in Jerusalem known as the House of Adiabene. The family ruled a small kingdom in what is now Iraq. They converted to Judaism and built a burial complex that was likened to one of the Seven Wonders of the World. This tomb was believed to hold the remains of a few of the family members, including Queen Helena and her sons Izatus and Monobazus, also known as King Munbaz (the Hebrew form of the Greek name).
Munbaz was a righteous king who lived at the end of the Second Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) Era. The way he chose to live played a major role in how the Jewish concept of tzedakah evolved. The Talmud4 tells a story of his detractors accusing him of squandering his and his ancestors’ treasures and sent a letter to him, “Your ancestors saved treasures and added to those of their ancestors. But you went and gave away all of your treasures – both yours and those of your ancestors!”
Munbaz addressed their complaints with six different responses:
- My ancestors saved treasures below, but I saved treasures above, as it is said, “Faithfulness will spring up from the ground.”5
- My ancestors saved treasures in a place in which a human hand rules, but I saved treasures in a place in which a human hand does not rule, as it is said, “Righteousness and justice are the base of Your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness stand before You.”6
- My ancestors saved treasures that do not yield interest, but I saved treasures that yield interest, as it is said, “Hail the just man, for he shall fare well; He shall eat the fruit of his works.”7
- My ancestors saved treasures of money, but I saved treasures of lives/souls, as it is said, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life; a wise man captivates people.”8
- My ancestors saved treasures for others, but I saved treasures for myself, as it is said, “and it will be to your credit (צדקה) [before the Lord your God].”9
- My ancestors saved treasures in this world, but I saved treasures for myself in the World to Come, as it is said, “Your Vindicator shall march before you.”10
Munbaz’s main argument is clear: while his ancestors stored up material goods in this world of finitude, he stored treasures that yield profits in the infinite World to Come. Munbaz repeated the word ‘saved’, because he wanted to show that giving was the surest way of saving. We have seen this concept before in Sifre Dvarim,11 in which Moshe’s body is “saved” (גנז) or hidden from us in this world, preserved only for the World to Come. So we see that when someone gives something as tzedakah in this world, as Moshe gave his life righteously to Hashem and the Jewish people, that tzedakah is “saved” for them in the World to Come.
In Likutey Halachot, Reb Natan expounds on the notion of opening one’s hand to give charity, which he calls an “arousal from below” and the first step in repentance. Charity is what creates the “arousal from above;” as Ramban explains, G-d chooses in these moments to reveal Himself to man. This is where one see’s Hashem’s hashgachah pratit, His ongoing, active participation in one’s personal life. As it says in Likutey Halachot, “Charity leads to unity, as it nullifies all the differences between people and points the way to truth, which is one. And by opening your hand and giving to others, you draw a spirit of life that brings vitality into your own life.”12
What Munbaz was teaching us is not only that giving tzedakah generates rewards in the World to Come, but that the money you give away is, in a sense, your own possession in this world and that the rewards are also reaped in this world. It’s as if what you give away you freeze in time; it can no longer be taken from you and will always exist as it was in that moment of giving. Whereas, everything that you hold onto is ephemeral and can be gone the very next day, without serving any higher purpose.
Using Jeremiah as a source— “the wise shall not boast their wisdom.. the strong their strength.. and the rich their wealth”13 Rabbeinu Bachya teaches that if one relies solely on their abundance of wealth, it will be removed from them and left to someone else, or, if God does not take the money away, then He takes away the ability to enjoy the wealth, as King Solomon writes, “God gives him no power to eat of it.”14
There is a story from the Middle Ages of a great Torah Sage who was close with a Sultan. The Sage was protected from his enemies because the Sultan trusted and admired him greatly. However, these enemies continued to try to take down the Sage any way they could, including lying and telling the Sultan that the Sage was hiding income and avoiding taxes. Disappointed to hear this, the sultan approached the Sage and asked him the total value of his fortune. The Sultan was further disappointed when the Sage’s response was considerably lower than what the records showed him actually possessing. So, the sultan immediately threw the Sage in prison. However, the Sultan was in disbelief and couldn’t really comprehend that after all this time, the Sage, a man of wisdom, truth, and integrity would lie about his wealth. So, the Sultan went to visit the prison and asked the Sage to elaborate on his initial response. The Sage looked at the Sultan and said, “I told you how much I gave to charity because that is the one thing that I truly possess, and no one can take it away from me. As you may see, the rest of my fortune has been taken away from me, and I no longer possess it. But the tzedakah that I gave is mine forever!”
Even though it sounds like a contradiction, the reality is that our possessions are only ours to the extent that we give them away. This is spelled out verses later in our parashah, as it’s written, “נָת֤וֹן תִּתֵּן֙ ל֔וֹ וְלֹא־יֵרַ֥ע לְבָבְךָ֖ בְּתִתְּךָ֣ ל֑וֹ כִּ֞י בִּגְלַ֣ל ׀ הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֗ה יְבָרֶכְךָ֙ ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּכָל־מַעֲשֶׂ֔ךָ וּבְכֹ֖ל מִשְׁלַ֥ח יָדֶֽךָ // You should surely give to him, and do not let your heart feel bad, about giving to him. For because of this, God your Lord will bless you in all your endeavors and in everything you put your hand to.”15
On the other end of this, I always think of the Notorious B.I.G. and his song, “Mo Money Mo Problems,” which is actually paralleled in the Talmud, in Pirkei Avot:16 “The more possessions, the more worry.” Which isn’t to say that wealth, when used properly within a spiritual life, isn’t a blessing. This teaching is referring to the Sitra Achra, the other, darker side of wealth, when it is not used for giving, but instead constrains the person into ta’avat mammon (the desire for money), causing the person to fall deeper and deeper into the mentality of need. Reb Natan spells this out, teaching that wealthy people who have failed to grasp the purpose of life — and particularly those who envy the good fortune of others — suffer constantly. All the wealth in the world would not suffice for them.17 Even more powerfully, Proverbs says, “Charity saves from death.”18
So we see that we can counter the concept of ‘Mo Money, Mo Problems” with “More charity, more peace,” as it is written, “And the work of charity shall be peace.”19 This isn’t to say that one should give in order to receive, but the verse speaks to the difficulty of parting with one’s own possessions and reassures us that by giving away your possessions you create blessings not only for the recipient but for yourself.
In Likutey Halachot it’s written that tzedakah is the tikkun (rectification) of wealth, which further leads to unity and peace. And that is why it is customary to give tzedakah before tefillah, this way a person attains inner unity before stepping into God’s presence to make requests. The person’s prayers are then infused with the perception that everything is good and everything is one.20
King David, at the height of his wealth and power, said, “Poor and needy am I,”21 because he understood that everything is in the hands of Hashem and, as we learn in the Zohar, “He who is small, is great.”22 A humble person is happy with their lot, accepting everything with love and joy, never feeling that they deserve more, which only leads to disunity and anger.
I remember this one scene in the movie “This is 40” where Pete, played by Paul Rudd, has decided to go off on his own and start a record label. He’s put his all into releasing an album by a seasoned artist named Graham Parker, but when the album release event takes place, because of his meager album sales, Graham is forced to play to a small room. Barely anyone shows up, and Pete is extremely disappointed. Feeling bad that he couldn’t do more for his newly signed artist, Pete walks up to Graham after the show, and Graham teaches him the importance of keeping a small nut.
It goes a little like this:
Graham is packing up to go. Pete approaches him.
PETE (to the band)
That was spectacular guys, really well done.
(to Graham) Hey, Graham.
Pete! How are you, man?
Well, the first numbers came in.
Happy? How’s it looking?
About half of your last record.
Ah, so you were expecting it to sell. They never sell anymore. They used to sell. But now they don’t. I’m not a sexy sixteen-year-old girl.
But I wanted to sell it. It’s such a good record. I feel like I let you down.
No, I’m going to be fine. My overheads are so low. I just got a song in Glee.
Guy in the wheelchair is going to sing it to the Asian girl, I believe. I don’t know, I’ve never seen the show, but that’s what I’m told. Secret is, make sure you have a small nut. That’s the key to life.23
As odd as it may sound, this reminds me of one of Rebbe Nachman’s essential lessons, which he prefaces saying, “Understand this well: Learn to live within your means. Everyone is constantly in need of all kinds of things: this applies even to the very wealthy. It is best to be satisfied with a minimum and to run your household according to your means at the time.” He stresses the importance of being content with what we have and taking only what we need from this world. When we are content, we can enjoy the full light of God. The opposite of existing in this space is, “the belly of the wicked shall be wanting,”24 because in the space of insatiable lusts for materialism and money, a person is never content with what they have and constantly feels the need for more. Such a person can’t be at peace.
Rabbeinu teaches that worthless pursuits, pride, and malicious gossip can lead only to poverty, both spiritual and eventually material. The remedy for these things, however, is to give charity, which brings blessing and prosperity.25
It is in Genesis that we read of the curse, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread.”26 Giving charity frees a person from this. It is accounted to them as if they made an incense-offering to Hashem.27 Even out of the little that we may take from this world, we must contribute a portion to charity. We see this in the korbanot from the poor: they are still obligated to give, even when they may have so little, or seemingly nothing at all. It’s their giving that Hashem desires and values more than anything. It bestows dignity upon them and brings blessings to them, as Chazal teach, “God desires the heart.” The act of charity whereby the giver benefits the receiver ushers a flow of blessing and abundance into this world.28
One cheat code to receiving more is giving more, as it’s written in the Talmud, “tithe in order to become wealthy.”29 The Lubavitcher Rebbe in responsa to one of his Chassidim shared, “One whose Divine service is characterized by the attribute of kindness and its expression in Divine service (a quality particularly related to kohanim, for a kohen is a man of kindness)30 has no constraints to his spirit of generosity, be it in tzedakah or in Torah study. And there the Alter Rebbe concludes that G-d also conducts Himself toward that person with His attribute of abundant kindness that is without limit or end.”31
The Rebbe continues, “G‑d has two ways [of granting blessings]: one is that He grants money first and sees what proportion a person gives to tzedakah. Another way is for a person to give even more tzedakah than he can. G‑d does not remain indebted and pays the person back, calculating how many portions [are due him] if he had given a tenth, or if he had given with abandon, how many portions [are due him] as a fifth. As a consequence, the result is that for every dollar that one gives beyond what appears to him as his present capacity, G‑d gives him, in addition to that dollar, many times that amount, as is well known [and explained] in several texts.”
I often quote the Beatles lyric, “the love you take is equal to the love you make.” In another music-Talmud parallel, Ben Zoma asks, “Who is wealthy?” and answers, “He who rejoices in his lot.”32 What you have is created by what you give. If you have a community, children, the love of people, all of that comes to you by virtue of giving and loving. The same with tzedakah– what you give is the only thing that you can truly say is yours. True wealth is the blessing of giving.
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Notes & Sources
- Psalms 111:3, 112:3, 9
- Deuteronomy 15:7
- Eitz Chaim 1:1
- Talmud Bava Batra 11a
- Psalms 85:12
- Ibid 89:15
- Isaiah 3:10
- Proverbs 11:30
- Deuteronomy 24:13
- Isaiah 58:8
- Sifre Deuteronomy 305
- Likutey Halachot III, p. 137a, IV, p. 194a
- Jeremiah 9:22,23
- Ecclesiastes 6:2
- Deuteronomy 15:10
- Pirkei Avot Chapter 2, Mishnah 7
- Likutey Halachot, HaOseh Shaliach LeGevot Chov 3:11
- Proverbs 11:4
- Isaiah 32:17
- Likutey Halachot, Matzranot 1, end
- Psalms 109:22
- Zohar I, 122b
- “This is 40”, written and directed by Judd Apatow
- Proverbs 13:25
- Likutey Moharan I, 4:8
- Genesis 3:19
- Likutey Moharan I, 13:1
- Ibid I, 54
- Talmud Shabbat 119a
- Zohar III, p. 145b
- How to Insure Wealth; a Chassidic Approach to Giving Charity, Letter No. 720, the recipient of the letter, was R. Yaakov Katz, a kohen
- Pirkei Avot Chapter 4, Mishnah 1