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Path of the Soul #6: Giving from the Heart

May 9, 2009 | by Dr. Alan Morinis

Generosity is a movement of the soul that erupts when you are pierced by the recognition of your direct connection to another soul.

The soul-trait of generosity is named "nedivut" in Hebrew. Mussar clearly distinguishes this type of generosity from another kind, called tzedakah, which means obligated giving, such as tithing.

Nedivut-type generosity comes not from obligation nor rational thought, but out of an irresistible feeling that stirs deep within. Your heart compels your hand to dig into your pocket. It's a movement of the soul that erupts when you are pierced by the recognition of your direct connection to another soul. I give to you because your need is my need, your suffering is my suffering. I feel one with you and respond as freely as if for myself.

The overall goal of Mussar practice is to help us fulfill our potential to really live as the holy souls we are. To move toward holiness, one must yearn for it. One must be propelled by a spiritual willingness -- nedivut ha-lev -- a generosity of the heart.

Because we live in a money-centric culture, we tend to think of generosity only as a question of reaching into our wallets. But as with all character traits, generosity is a trait of the soul and so it can find expression in many ways, including how you share your time, your energy, and your possessions. When your heart is guided by an open, trusting, voluntary, inspired, internal motivation that overflows from the depth of your caring in response to the needs of, or love for, another, you will always find a way to respond.

If you have money in your pocket, you give money. If you have no money but there's food in your home, you give food. If there's no food in your home but ideas in your mind, you give helping words. If there are no words in your mouth but love in your heart, you offer your heart itself.

We are naturally inclined to give like that, but we can act on that inclination only when our heart is open. That isn't always the case. When our hearts are closed or walled off, we are suffering from a spiritual ailment that the Mussar teachers have called timtum ha-lev, literally meaning a stopped-up heart. Think of Pharaoh. Instead of being open, flowing, and generous, we are sluggish, constipated, and unwilling at our core.

Why does that happen to us? If the heart is generous and ready by its nature, how does its flow get to be so obstructed that we live without being generous? And what can we do about it?

Sometimes we end up with timtum ha-lev, a stopped-up heart, because we willingly blockade our own hearts. We build barriers to separate ourselves from others.

In India, you hear disparaging stories about beggars -- that they are professionals who earn a fortune off the unwary, or that mothers mutilate their children so they will be more successful at begging, and so on. These stories are likely untrue. In a population of a billion people, a high proportion of whom are poor, it just isn't necessary to create the physical ailments that make people into beggars. But stories like these circulate because they are useful for building a wall around the hearts of people who are confounded by the demands being made on them. We fear the sensitive heart won't be able to bear the full onslaught of the monumental suffering of all of India's beggars. Drawn by the heart to respond, yet threatened by fear of overload, how comforting it is to have a rationale for turning away from that overwhelming pain.

Can you see any ways you build walls around your own heart?

Can you see any ways you build walls around your own heart? Do you rationalize rather than commit the effort it may take to be generous in a relationship? What reasons do you give yourself to turn away?

Sometimes this blockage done to us. Life experience can play its part in shutting down the heart. The heart wants to be open, but sometimes it is just not capable of keeping its shutters open in the face of the brutal battering it has been handed. In this case, we can empathize with peoples' need to close off their hearts.

And yet if it is we who have been the victim, and we accept that situation, we do a different kind of violence to the heart. When your heart is closed, you are the first among those who suffer from that closure. There may be good reasons why it feels too risky to open up, but by tolerating that condition, we accept an imposed timtum ha-lev. With a walled-off heart, our lives will be so much less than they could be.

When you let your imagination run toward being spontaneously generous, can you identify any fears that arise in you that cause you to hold back? Can you see how these fears are walls and gates that keep your own heart locked up and closed down? Can you see how accepting these scars as unchangeable realities perpetuates the damage done by the original offense?

More common than being abused in harsh and scarring ways is the tendency to sacrifice the ways of the heart for the needs of the ego. The ego sees the riches of the world as a fixed pie, and works to get the largest slice, believing that somebody's only going to get crumbs. All of this works against the heart's inclination to spontaneous generosity.

Ask yourself: do I give spontaneously from the heart? If you are aware that the condition of timtum ha-lev -- blockages obstructing the heart -- applies to you, then one Mussar approach is to identify the traits that are the source of the fear and clutching, and to work on these specific soul-traits. The fears that restrain us can be strong and the scars that constrain us can be hard, so you can expect to have to be persistent (remembering to be compassionate to yourself at the same time) as you look for and then endeavor to adjust the levels of your middot, so the heart can fulfill its role.

Another approach applies more for people whose hearts are being enslaved to ego, where the inner voice says, "How can I give when I don't even have enough for ME?" Here you might cultivate a sense that what you do for others is actually a great gift to yourself. No one loses.

Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, the founder of the Kelm school of Mussar, explained how bearing the burden of the other is a profound spiritual practice. He brings as his example the story of Moses, who began his spiritual journey cocooned in Pharaoh's palace but ultimately became the greatest of prophets by responding to the suffering he saw around him. "He saw their suffering," the Torah tells us, and what he felt had a formative impact on the development of his soul.

In basing his Mussar on the idea of "bearing the burden of the other," Rabbi Simcha Zissel was working out details of a spiritual method pointed to by his own teacher, Rabbi Israel Salanter. In one of his most memorable sayings, Rabbi Salanter comments that "the spiritual is higher than the physical, but the physical needs of another are an obligation of my spiritual life." In order that I can follow my spiritual path, I have to pay attention to the needs of others. Generosity would be one of the most accessible ways to do that.

When an opportunity to be generous presents itself, no inner debate is called for. Just do it.

The Hassidic teacher, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, teaches that anyone who does not practice generosity has "a heart of stone." Don't think about it too much. Don't analyze. When an opportunity to be generous presents itself, no inner debate is called for. Just do it. That's how you thaw that frozen heart. Each act of generosity works to pry open the heart a little, like clearing a blocked stream one pebble at a time. The flow of spontaneity is then freed to follow.

It might seem paradoxical to aim to have your generosity impact your own soul, since that would appear to give a reward to the giver. Not so, because of the magic of generosity. It rewards all. In Hebrew, the phrase "and they shall give" (v'natnu) is spelled vav-nun-tet-nun-vav It's a palindrome, a word that is spelled the same way whether you read it left to right or right to left. Such is the flow of generosity.

It isn't enough just to give money or an object; God wants us to give our hearts. Wrapped up in our hearts are the inner qualities that can adorn our generosity. Will your gift be just a thing, or will it be accompanied by empathy, commitment, love or other soul-traits you have the power to cultivate in yourself? When you undertake to give your heart, you change an element of yourself. With each act of generosity you make yourself into a more giving (or empathic, or committed, or loving, or...) person. And when you change yourself, you change the world.

Ultimately, the reward we reap for generosity is that the presence of God dwells among us.

© Alan Morinis


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