The imperative to give is deeply ingrained in the soul of the Jew: among no other people or culture is the practice of giving to the needy as universal or as extensive as it is within the Jewish community. Our sages describe the mitzvah of tzedakah (charity) as “equivalent to all the mitzvot” and refer to it simply as “the mitzvah.”
But charity, in the sense of the moral duty to share one’s blessings with the less fortunate, is but one expression of a deeper, underlying truth: that existence itself is founded on a giver-recipient dynamic. The Kabbalists trace the very origins of the created reality to a divine desire to give: G-d, in His perfect and complete reality, all-inclusive and all-transcendent, obviously had no “needs” to be filled, nothing to “gain” from creating our world; so the act of creation was the ultimate act of charity, stemming from a pure desire to give. Nor is G-d’s charity confined to His initial act of creation: every fraction of time, every created entity is dependent upon G-d continuously granting it existence and life.
“G-d created man in His image,” imparting to the human soul the various “character traits” He assumed in His role as Creator. So man, too, is a giver. The most obvious expression of this is his charitable nature—the fact that every right-thinking human being understands that the sight of a fellow man in need should move him to contribute to the satisfaction of that need. But this is only part of the picture. At the heart of a functioning society is the flow of resources and goods between individuals; commerce, trade and credit are indispensable to life as we know it. (In fact, the Torah considers the granting of a loan an even greater form of charity than a gift to a pauper, since the latter is confined to a certain segment of the population, the poor, while everyone needs loans, including the rich.)
All this may seem obvious and unremarkable to us, but certainly G-d could have created man to be self-sufficient, without the need to give to and receive from others. But because G-d wanted man to emulate and reflect Himself, He imprinted the giver-recipient partnership into the very fabric of human need and nature. Indeed, G-d decreed that His giver-recipient relationship with us should be dependent upon how we exercise our role as “givers” within His creation. Thus our acts of charity toward each other are the “vessel” and receptacle for the flow of sustenance from Above.
The correlation between man’s charity (in all its forms) and his relationship with his Creator can be seen in the mitzvah of machatzit hashekel, described by the Torah in the 30th chapter of Exodus.
Machatzit hashekel was the half-shekel coin which each individual Jew was commanded to contribute toward the building of the Mishkan, the portable Sanctuary built by the Jewish people during their forty years of wandering through the desert. These half-shekels were used to cast the silver foundation blocks upon which the Sanctuary stood.
The Sanctuary was built by divine command to serve as the place where “I shall dwell amongst them”—where G-d’s presence in our world and His relationship with us are manifest. And the foundation of this relationship are our acts of giving and charity, represented by the half-shekel coins contributed by each Jew that were cast as the physical base of the Sanctuary.
From an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Parshat Shekalim 5751 (February 9, 1991)
Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
. Talmud, Bava Batra 9a; see Tanya, ch. 37; Likkutei Torah, Re’ei 23c.
. See Tanya, part II, ch. 1.
. Genesis 1:27.
. Talmud, Sukkah 49b.
. Read this Shabbat as “Parshat Shekalim.”
. Exodus 25:8.
. Sefer HaSichot 5751, vol. I, pp. 319 ff.