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The Jewish Ethicist: Charity and Providence

May 8, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

Give charity today – you may need it tomorrow.

Q.God commands us to give charity. Does this mean He guarantees that we won't come to need and regret our generosity? If I still fear I may come to need, does that show a lack of faith in God's providence?

A. In Jewish thought, giving charity doesn't indicate faith that we won't need the money. The opposite is true: we give charity precisely because we recognize that someday we too might be in need of charity. Giving charity gets the ball rolling, and when we need it, it will roll in our direction. Let us examine some examples of this principle:

In the book of Exodus (22:24), the Torah commands us go give charity with the following language:

When you lend money to My people, to the poor with you, don't be unto him like a creditor, and don't take interest.

What is the meaning of the expression "the poor with you?" Rashi gives two explanations: the first is that "with you" means those who are close to you, for example your relatives or neighbors. These have precedence in giving charity. The second explanation is that "with you" means that you too may someday be poor: "Lood at yourself as if you are poor." This is supposed to motivate us to give charity, and not prevent us. When we imagine ourselves as poor, we think how we would want those better off to help us without too much thought for the future.

Another place we are commanded to give charity is in the book of Deuteronomy (15:10):

Surely give to him and don't let your heart sink when you give him. For because of this, the Lord your God will bless you in all your acts and in all your endeavors.

The word used for "because" is an unusual one, found in only four other places in the Bible. The word is cognate to the word for a wheel, or rolling. It is as if the verse says, Giving charity will wheel around a blessing for you. The Talmud notes this use as follows:

Rabbi Elazar HaKafar says, A person should seek mercy regarding this state [of poverty], for if it doesn't all on him, it could fall on his child; and if it doesn't fall on his child, it could fall on his grandchild. As it is written, "Because of this thing", and Rabbi Yishmael taught, It is a wheel that turns in the world. (1)

There is no blemish in your faith if you have some concern for future misfortune or need. God watches over us at all times, but those times can include many ups and downs. Faith in this context means that if you fall on hard times you trust that God will provide you a source of sustenance even in your troubles.

What is important is that any concern should not serve as an excuse to refrain from giving charity according to your current means. On the contrary, the thought that a person, or his offspring, might someday be in need is a motivation to give charity now. Once the ball is rolling, it will roll our way when we need it.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 151b.

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

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