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Just Wondering

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman

It is quite difficult to give tzedakah for its own sake

Wednesday, April 10, 2019


he tzedakah circulars and notices are ubiquitous: Give, so that your daughter will find a proper match; so that you will find healing for your disease, so that your new venture should succeed…

Just wondering: I always thought, perhaps naively, that our service of G-d should be without strings attached. Is it not a degradation of a holy mitzvah to sell it like toothpaste? Use this cream to make yourself attractive, give to this tzedakah to engender favorable results for you. All the accepted Madison Avenue advertising techniques are mobilized: Eight-color brochures, endless repetition, promises of benefits, robocalls, endorsements by famous figures who will pray for us,  photos of famous personalities giving to this tzedakah. All the stratagems except money-back guarantees — so far….

Which leads to a question: Am I performing this mitzvah as a quid pro quo with my Creator? And if He does not keep His end of the bargain and I don’t find a good match for my daughter, then what?

Whatever happened to the purity of our way of life? Do we only give tzedakah because it will in some way benefit us? Does not this mean that I give with conditions attached? I will do this, dear G-d, but I expect You to do that in return. What happened to the Sages’ comment in Avos I:3: “Al tiheyu ka’avadim… al menas l’kabel pras — Do not be like servants who serve the Master for the sake of receiving a reward.”

It is claimed that because of these hard-sell tactics, much more money is collected for tzedakah. But is the price being paid — disrespect for the mitzvah as Divine commandment and diminution of its sanctity — worth it? And if this is the only effective way to collect charity, and if we only give for an anticipated reward, what does this say about our essential piety?

A mitzvah, after all, is supposed to be performed because it is a commandment from the Commander-in-Chief. No reasons given. No questions asked. No excuses. You must do as you are ordered. If you do not, you are derelict in your duty to the Commander. As the Sages put it, Do not say, I will not eat pig because it tastes bad. Rather, say I will not eat pig even if it tastes good, because my Father in Heaven commanded me not to eat it (Toras Kohanim 20, cited by Rashi at Vayikra 20:26).

Of course, it is quite difficult to give tzedakah for its own sake, sans any personal considerations. For example, the Talmud (Pesachim 8a-b) says that if a person gives to tzedakah “so that [his] son shall live, he is a tzaddik gamur, completely righteous.” Is this not quid pro quo? No, says Rashi, because even if his son does not live, the father still gives his tzedakah with a full heart. In brief, his giving was unconditional, and by giving he affirms his belief in G-d. (Other versions read it as “tzedek gamur,” not tzaddik gamur; i.e., even if the giver has an ulterior motive, it is still a complete act of righteousness, albeit on a lower level.) Similar is the rabbinic dictum, based on the identical Hebrew spelling for “tithe” (aser) and “wealth” (ashir), that one becomes wealthy by giving ( Shabbos 119a). This not a quid pro quo, but rather a transcending Divine reassurance about giving to the poor. Overriding all else is the maxim of Rabbeinu Bechaye at Devarim 15:10 that gedolah tzedakah lishmah, giving tzedakah for its own sake is the ideal tzedakah.

Yes, there is the concept of Reward and Punishment — sechar v’onesh. Ultimately, one is rewarded for his mitzvos, and punished for his transgressions. However, the truly pious individual performs mitzvos without thinking of this. He will undoubtedly receive his just recompense either in This World or the Next World, but his performance of the mitzvah is focused on avodas Hashem and not on what he will gain or lose. In brief, reward and punishment exist, but they are not the motivators of the truly pious.

In sum: We are doing the right thing by giving huge amounts of tzedakah, and many of us actually tithe and give ten percent as required. But we still have a long way to go before we give tzedakah in the ideal way.

And somehow I wish we could find ways to promote the giving of tzedakah without demeaning its sanctity. Just wondering.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 756)

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