A teaching on tzedakah by Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, from Yismach Lev on Masechet Shabbat.
Rabban Gamliel bar Rebbi taught: “The Torah tells us God will bestow upon you compassion and show compassion to you and multiply you. From this we learn that whoever is compassionate towards God’s creatures is shown compassion by heaven, and whoever is not compassionate towards God’s creatures is not shown compassion by heaven.” Shabbat 151b, Deuteronomy 13:18
Tzedakah lashem shamayim, giving to others for the sake of heaven, is so great that, just as your compassion is aroused in the act of giving, so is God’s compassion aroused, for as the Zohar teaches, “from arousal below comes arousal above” (1). But know with perfect faith that this compassion in your heart comes from above as well. Your task is to allow yourself to act on this compassion, to bring it from potential to reality, and not give in to your selfish urge which will come up with all sorts of arguments for why you shouldn’t give. When you fulfill this gift from the Creator and act on the compassion in your heart, God too is compassionate on you. See how great is God’s compassion that God causes us to be compassionate, so that we too can give and receive, from each other and from our Creator!
This is why it is taught that anyone who turns his eyes away from giving charity is considered an idol worshiper (2), as the sages explain, “There shall be no strange god within you. What is the strange god within you? The selfish urge” (3). If you do not resist your selfish urge and act on your compassion, you are turned over to the “outside forces” and the suffering they bring (4). This is the meaning of the teaching, “Tzedakah is great, because it brings redemption closer” — not only universal redemption for the world, but individual redemption, for you. As the Baal Shem Tov taught, Come near to me and redeem me means “from my own selfishness” (5), and as the Arizal taught, tzedakah effects the complete union of G!d’s Ineffable Name, YHVH, for the money that you give is like the yud in G!d’s name, and the five fingers of your open hand is the first heh, and when you reach your hand out to the poor it is like the vav, and when you give to the hand of the poor person it joins the first three letters to the final heh, and in this way God’s single Name is joined together and united (6), and you merit G!d’s compassion many times over.
1) Zohar I 164a 2) Bava Batra 10a; a great page to study for the High Holidays 3) Shabbat 105b on Psalms 81:10 4) That is (depending on your theology) unholy forces or simply undesirable events 5) This teaching on Psalm 69:19 is found in Toldos Yaakov Yosef Parshat Vayishlach. 6) G!d’s Ineffable Name, made up of the letters י yud /Y, ה heh/ H, ו vav/ V, and ה heh/ H, is recreated in the act of giving: yud, as the smallest letter and the first in G!d’s name, is considered a concentration of divine energy, just as the small coins passing hands are a material distillation of G!d’s beneficence; heh is also five, and thus represents the two hands; and vav means “hook” or “connection” and is a symbol of the channel of blessing between the upper and lower worlds through which G!d pours out the divine bounty. This teaching comes from Likkutei Torah of the Arizal, on Isaiah 32:17, “tzedakah shall make peace,” that is, between the letters in G!d’s name.
I just love this teaching.
One thing that does not come through as well in the translation is the difficulty in seeing who is giving and who is receiving in each sentence; many phrases could be translated as God giving to the giver or to the poor man, or the giver giving to the poor man or to God, or the poor man giving to the giver. This is no accident.
The Meor Einayim avoids the temptation (a dangerous one, to my mind) to read in the proof text a promise that giving to the poor will result in getting from God. Instead, the Meor Einayim reads God’s “bestowing compassion” not as material benefits but as compassion itself, that is, Gd gives us the compassion we feel, and this is far better than any monetary reward.