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What Happens When We Give?

Vayakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35-40 )

by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein

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Giving is transformative - and not just to the recipient. In a 2012 survey of studies linking altruistic behaviours to improved health, researchers from the University of Michigan concluded that giving time and money to organisations, providing social support to friends, family and community, caring for the elderly or the handicapped, and cultivating compassionate attitudes and traits is associated with higher psychological well-being, including increased happiness and self-esteem, and decreased loneliness and depression.

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, in a famous essay, wrote that there are two forces in this world, giving and taking, and correspondingly, two kinds of people, givers and takers. (He also explained how some people actually give by taking, and others take by giving - so the dynamic is obviously not so simple.) Furthermore, he said one of the great transformative goals of the Torah is to nurture us into being givers rather than takers. He also explained that giving is the foundation of all relationships - the more you give to a person, the more you love them. This is quite a paradigm shift. The conventional wisdom is that we give to those we love. Rabbi Dessler says it is exactly the reverse: we love those to whom we give.

On this Shabbos, apart from the weekly portion, we read a special section of the Torah dealing with an archetypal act of giving - the mitzvah of the half-shekel coin. In the wake of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people were called on to each donate a half-shekel silver coin. The collection of these coins had a dual purpose: they functioned as a census of the people (each coin corresponded to an individual) and also as a contribution to the Mishkan, the sanctuary in the desert where the Jewish people gathered to connect to the Shechinah, the Divine Presence. It is significant that both of these functions were joined in one act. The message seems to be that, through the process of giving and contributing to a worthy initiative, people earn the right to be counted as part of society. And that's exactly what a society is: a group of individuals, who, through their specific contributions, create a community, a collective that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Also significant is that the mitzvah of the half-shekel coin was given at this formative moment in the history of the Jewish people - in the midst of a series of momentous events: the Exodus from Egypt, and all of the miracles that accompanied that, and the revelation at Mount Sinai, which is regarded as the central event in the formation of the Jewish people. The giving of the half-shekel - and the concept of giving in general - is foundational to who we are.

The mitzvah continued during Temple times: each year, from the beginning of the month of Adar, and in the lead-up to Pesach, a national campaign was launched whereby half-shekel coins were collected from people across the land of Israel, which went towards the running costs of the Temple. Crucially, the offerings brought to the Temple could only be purchased with the coins collected that year and not with coins from previous years. This signifies the importance of continual giving, and also connects the act of giving with the sacred service of the Temple.

A remembrance of the half-shekel continues to this day. In addition to commemorating the mitzvah with this special Torah reading, there is a further commemoration on Purim, with each person required to give three coins - half the denomination of one's national currency, so three 50c pieces, for example - to charity.

In Biblical times, the half-shekel went towards the Mishkan and later the Temple. And similarly, the mitzvah symbolises our responsibility to build the institutions that help us connect to God in today's times - shuls, schools, yeshivas, houses of Torah learning. And, like the Biblical commandment, the impact is twofold - it helps us build the Torah infrastructure necessary for any flourishing Jewish society. And it transforms those who contribute, connecting us to our society, and forging us into a community of givers - becoming no less than a partner with our Creator in these holy endeavours.

Perhaps the quintessential form of giving is the mitzvah of tzedakah, giving to the needy. Tzedakah is about taking care of the physical well-being of the most vulnerable members of society, helping those who can't afford to take care of their basic needs. As the Torah says (Devarim 15:7): "If there is a destitute person amongst you... you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother."

But, there is also another dimension to tzedakah. By supporting those in need, we enable their full human potential to flourish. God created a world for human beings to give expression to their Tzelem Elokim, the "Divine image" - the spark of pure Godliness within each one of us - to flourish. Poverty is an assault on the Tzelem Elokim within a person. The burden of poverty can crush the flourishing of human potential, because if a person's entire existence is focused only on meeting basic needs, then they cannot invest their efforts in more lofty pursuits: developing themselves morally and spiritually, nurturing their Divine souls, aspiring to true human greatness.

Tzedakah applies not just to giving money. Emotional support is also important. As the Talmud says (Bava Batra 9b): "Whoever gives a poor person a pruta [the lowest unit of currency of that time] is blessed [by God] with six blessings. And whoever gives verbal encouragement is blessed [by God] with 11 blessings". The Rambam explains that one should give with a smile and not begrudgingly, empathising with the person's pain and speaking words of comfort. The Rambam (Hilchot Matanot Aniim 10:5) writes: "It is forbidden to rebuke the poor person and to raise one's voice by shouting at him, because his heart is broken and despondent..."

The Rambam (Hilchot Matanot Aniim 10:7- 14) actually lists eight levels of tzedakah (derived from the Talmud), which are ranked according to the degree to which they preserve the dignity and self-respect of the recipient (and thereby help nurture the Tzelem Elokim).

The highest level of tzedakah, according to the Rambam, is to help a person achieve financial independence - through an interest-free loan, for example, or gainful employment. In such a scenario, the recipient is no longer a "charity case" and becomes self-sufficient.

The second highest level of tzedakah is when neither the donor nor the recipient know each other, with the anonymity protecting the dignity of the recipient. The next level is partial anonymity, when the giver knows the recipient, but not vice versa. The fourth level is when the recipient knows the giver, but not vice versa.

The fifth level is when both parties know each other, but the donor gives to the needy person unsolicited. Level six is where the giver gives tzedakah after being requested to do so. Level seven is where the giver gives less than what is appropriate, but does so with warmth and graciousness. And level eight, the lowest level of tzedakah, is where the giver gives begrudgingly, which is humiliating for the recipient. The Rambam writes elsewhere that if tzedakah is given angrily or bitterly, then the giver loses all the merit for his actions, even if he gives "one thousand gold pieces". (Rambam Hilchot Matanot Aniim 10:4)

Clearly, tzedakah transforms the life of the recipient. But, there is also a profound impact on the giver - someone who accustoms himself to giving becomes more compassionate, refined, generous and holy. This point is emphasised by the Talmud (Bava Batra 10a), which grapples with the theological question of why God commands us to give tzedakah - if God wanted poor people to have the necessary financial resources, then He Himself could provide them with their needs. The Talmud records that this question was proposed by the Roman General, Turnus Rufus, to Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva's answer was the point we have been making - that tzedakah completely transforms the giver, that through the act of giving, we ourselves become worthy recipients of God's blessings and reward.

Rabbi Akiva gives another dimension to his answer. He says this is part of the will of God, that we are considered to be His children, and that in the same way a father would want his children to be looked after, so too, God wants all of His children to be looked after, and this applies especially to those in desperate need, like people who are suffering in poverty. And so, when we give, we are indeed fulfilling the will of God.

Giving tzedakah also instils within a person real faith in God. Giving our hard-earned money to another is an acknowledgment that our earnings are a blessing from God, and that whatever we have received from Him was given with the trust that we would use it to uplift the lives of others. This is why halacha requires that we set aside a percentage of our disposable income (between 10% and 20%) for tzedakah. The fact that it is a fixed percentage instils in us the notion that all of our material possessions are in fact a gift from God, to be used in accordance with the directives that God has given us.

That also relates to why the Hebrew word for charity is tzedakah, which is derived from the Hebrew word tzedek, meaning "justice". Tzedakah isn't really charity. Charity implies a discretionary act of giving. tzedakah, on the other hand, is no less than a fulfilment of basic principles of justice.

It is for this reason that remarkable reward is promised for it. Indeed, one of the few areas - perhaps the only area - in which we are allowed to test God is charity. There is a God-given guarantee that whatever we give to charity will be returned to us, and more.

Why is it that we get back what we give and more? Rav Shimon Shkop has an interesting explanation. He says the reason God gave us the money in the first place was so we would use it to help the poor, support Torah learning institutions, etc. So, if we use the money for the purpose for which it was given, then of course God is going to give us more. In a sense, God is investing in us. It stands to reason that if our returns are good, God will continue showering us with blessings.

We see that tzedakah is an act of deep faith. It is an act that connects us to community, and uplifts the lives of others. And, through the act of giving, we ourselves are transformed.

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