Charity and the Mind Body Problem

The subject of tzedaka (charity) was discussed in last week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, not once but twice. The laws of giving charity can be simple or quite involved, depending on the situation. If someone asks you for money on the street, it is a mitzvah to give (some would say if it is not clear the money will be put to good use, there may be a reason to refrain). However, the attitude to of the giver can significantly change the power of the tzedaka given, as well as the situation. To give anonymously, according to the Rambam, is a much higher form of tzedaka, and the highest form of tzedaka is to help someone find employment. As the saying goes (not from the Torah, but in a similar spirit); “Give a man a fish, he will eat for one meal. Teach a man to fish, he will always have food.”

There are many forms of tzedaka we give; amounts of money given directly to people in need, interest-free loans, a tenth of our earnings which may be given to individuals or organizations which feed the poor or teach young men or women Torah. One of the most powerful aspects of this mitzvah (which is sometimes referred to as “the mitzvah” because tzedaka, along with Torah study, is the ultimate mitzvah) is that it can bring even the most mundane activities to a high, spiritual level.

It isn’t only tzedaka that can bring material objects to the level of holy objects. Just living our daily lives with the right attitude can bless every moment of our days on the Earth.

For instance, a person can work all week, even overtime (but not on Friday night or Saturday, which is Shabbat) and can be doing something extremely spiritual as he works. And no, he isn’t a Jewish scribe or a teacher of Torah. Let’s say he is a day trader. Or a CEO. Even though he may be dealing with nothing more holy than money all week, if he believes his work is dedicated to the 10% or more of his wages he is going to give to tzedaka, another amount is dedicated to feed and clothe his family, the iPod he buys will be used to listen to Torah lectures, the expensive kosher wine will be saved to share with guests on Sukkot, and the purpose of trip to the fancy kosher restaurant is to cheer his wife up and promote peace in the home, this day trader or CEO is a holy man!

I wasn’t religious all my life. For a few years, I was a philosophy student. I found in Yiddishkeit a solution to the mind-body problem that has plagued Western Philosophy for hundreds of years. It isn’t a problem of whether or not to live in the world, because really, there is no other option (although in every tradition there are terribly misled “holy” people try to make others feel guilty for fulfilling their basic needs). Judaism is concerned with the best way to live in the world and to fulfill Hashem’s plan which, believe it or not, involves eating, sleeping and working as well as praying and learning Torah.

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