“If someone gives charity saying, ‘I give this sela [ancient monetary amount] to charity in order that my children may live or that I may merit life in the world to come,’ he is still considered a fully-fledged righteous person.”
BT Rosh Hashana 4a
It is sometimes hard to give full credit to someone who gives charity on condition or as a naming opportunity, particularly if the name is his or her own and not that of a relative or friend. And yet, this passage of the Talmud has no qualms about the practice. If someone gives charity on the condition that something good will happen to him or his children, it is regarded as an act of righteousness regardless of the terms. This individual is considered a “tzadik gamur’ – a fully-fledged righteous person.
This is difficult to compute with a competing statement about humility that appears in Ethics of the Fathers: “Be not like servants who serve the Master to receive a reward” (1:3). The Koren Steinsaltz brings two Talmud commentators who offer an alternative reading of this statement because of their discomfort with the notion that such a person is a tzadikand read it instead as tzedaka. It does not matter how you give, the money is considered a complete act of charity, thus placing the emphasis on the gift and not on the person. Some emphasize that what makes this person righteous is not what he hopes to gain but the way in which he gives. If he or she gives generously, even for the sake of some reward, then this individual is considered special and worthy. In charity it is the how and not the why that is of ultimate importance.
This passage gets to the heart of a difficult conundrum in charity. Is it about the process or the outcome? In the statement above, the outcome is critical, but we know that a lot of charities today are process rather than outcome driven. They have campaign goals and a culture of cultivation, courting donors [and spending a lot of time and money doing so] instead of stating very specific needs and how they achieve them. For example, “our campaign is one million dollars, and we are 50% to goal” as opposed to “we need to feed 150 seniors in a daily meal program at the cost of…” All of the events and lunches and meetings often distance people from the very problems they seek to solve with their charitable dollars.
Yet, in a medieval compendium of Jewish law, the Sefer Ha-Hinukh, the emphasis is on the one who gives and how the charitable transaction creates a deeper level of compassion and generosity in the giver, almost in absence of the receiver. Thus, the process is paramount. How are you transformed as a result of giving more expansively?
But perhaps there is something deeper in the charitable equation or negotiation above. After all, what is at issue here is not a name on a wall but the welfare of one’s children or the future of the giver in the next life. In other words, the stakes here are not about status but about leveraging charity to achieve health and religious satisfaction, ultimately two spiritual goals. The profound desire to invest in one’s future is paralleled by the investment that the giver makes in others. If I make someone else’s life better, will it make my life better? The answer in this passage of Talmud is a resounding yes. My existential understanding of the world is that if I build spiritual capacity by addressing the needs of others, I may expand, in some way, the compassion I need to live in this world.
This sentiment is echoed in another legal text that understands charity as a spiritual insurance policy. “A person should meditate on the fact that, at every moment, he asks God for his livelihood. And just as he requests that the Holy One, blessed be He, hear his cry, so too should he hear the cry of the poor. He should meditate on the fact that the wheel of fortune turns constantly, and ultimately he, his children or his grandchildren may need to receive charity” (Laws of Charity, Kitzur Shulkhan Arukh 34:1).
The wheel of fortune turns constantly, and we may never know when we will have to be on the receiving end of charity. It’s good to be the hand that gives. It helps us appreciate that if we ever need to be the hand that receives, someone else will put out a hand with love and grace.