From where does this notion come? Is it just a good conduct and morality clause to keep us from destroying each other? Did God sit at his desk up there in Heaven and develop a set of laws so that His children will behave well and be kind to one another, because he wanted a world that looked pretty and people in it to play nice? Why is it when we face our own mortality we become awakened to the idea of charity? Is this part of religious manipulation to get us to give before we die, or is there something our soul knows that our body does not?
There is a humorous story that illustrates the complexity of our relationship with charity:
A very wealthy man is out enjoying the spoils of his wealth on his very sizeable yacht when a titanic storm hits and the ship is destroyed. Alone in the darkness he is sure he will die when a small voice inside reminds him that in Sunday school he learned that charity can save one from death. He musters up his strength and yells out loud to God “My money means nothing to me, I just want to live! If you save me from this disaster, I will give all my money to charity.” At that moment, daylight breaks and he sees land in the distance. His body and his will strengthened by the sight, he says “God, please if you can just help me to make it to land, I will give half of my wealth to charity.” Shortly thereafter, and without exerting much effort, the man finds himself only a few miles from shore; now empowered with the possibility that he might just make it after all, he says in a calm and calculated voice , “God, if you can ensure that I get there I will give 10 percent of my wealth to charity. Do you know how rich I am? 10 percent is a lot of money!” And before he completed uttering the words, his feet touched the sandy ocean floor. Beneath his breath the man murmurs, “You know what, God, thanks anyway, I don’t need your help. I made it on my own.”
Today if you google charity you will find many articles about the ways that people rationalize and theorize giving. Statistics show that we have definitely evolved into a society that is more socially aware of the hardship facing our neighbors around the world and even those closer to home, largely due to the power and effect of social media to minimize the space and maximize the understanding between us. Yet, the idea that giving charity is meant to benefit the giver is predominately a construct that finds itself more at home in religious texts. Whether as part of Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, the major religious traditions have some instruction regarding giving to the poor and that this act of kindness brings a greater benefit to the giver. One form of charity in the Islam religion, Zakat, can bring about a cleansing to the giver. From a perspective in Buddhism, giving is a recognition of the interdependence of life, and generosity is one of the attributes that fosters spiritual awakening. In the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak states “the place where the lowly are cared for, it is only there your merciful glance and grace exist”. (HDSY Harvard Divinity School) And as the Talmud explains: "More than the wealthy person does for the poor man; the poor person does for the wealthy one."
Kabbalah, the physics of spirituality, provides sound metaphysical logic for this and other spiritual precepts, identifying the mechanics of this universe and how the Light of the Creator, the source of Life flows from the unseen dimension to this, the seen and experienced dimension of physicality.
The Zohar, the source book from where all kabbalistic knowledge originates, states that giving charity to the poor causes an intense unification between the upper world (Zeir Anpin) and the physical world (Malchut).
The Zohar explains:
Come and behold: we learned where the poor man is; THAT IS, MALCHUT, WHEN NOT UNITED WITH ZEIR ANPIN. What is the reason thereof? It is that the poor man has nothing of his own, save that which he is given. The moon, MALCHUT, also has no light of her own, save what the sun, ZEIR ANPIN, gives her.
Come and behold: why is the poor man considered to be as a dead man? Because this is brought about by that place, as he is in a place of death, FOR MALCHUT IS THE SECRET OF THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE OF GOOD AND EVIL. IF ONE IS WORTHY, IT IS OF GOODNESS AND LIFE, BUT IF HE IS NOT, IT IS OF EVIL AND DEATH. He is therefore called 'a dead man'. He who pities him and gives him charity CAUSES the Tree of Life, CALLED 'CHARITY,' to rest upon THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE OF GOOD AND EVIL, WHICH IS THE TREE OF DEATH; as it is written, "but righteousness (lit. 'charity') delivers from death" (Mishlei 10:2). Thus, as man does below, IN RELIEVING THE POOR MAN, CALLED 'A DEAD MAN', so he does exactly above, IN CAUSING THE TREE OF LIFE TO REST UPON THE TREE OF DEATH. Happy is the portion of he who is worthy of making a Holy Name above, NAMELY, TO UNITE IT WITH ZEIR ANPIN. For that reason charity surpasses everything. (Behukotai. 21-24)
While the Light of the Creator is an infinite force of energy incomprehensible to the finite mind, the attributes of the Creator are knowable and are manifested in this physical world through ten emanations, ten different aspects of energy called sefirot. When the upper worlds (Zeir Anpin) are brought together with the physical world (Malchut) through the viaduct of Yesod (which sits between Malchut and the upper six spheres of Zeir Anpin) the entire world and all that is in it is illuminated, thereby bringing blessings and sustenance to this physical dimension. The Zohar’s statement, that “charity surpasses everything,” indicates to us that the action which most powerfully achieves this union is charity (Tzedakah). Each time we give charity, a flood of Light is brought to bear on this physical world.
The word Tzadik and Tzedakah share the same root (Tzedek). In the Bible portion of Genesis 41 we learn about Joseph and his dream. Joseph is the only character in the Bible who is given the designation Tzadik which is translated to mean that he is righteous. And yet, one would imagine that the Bible is full of “righteous” people. So why is he the only one to have this designation? The Zohar explains that Tzadik is connected to the Sefira of Yesod and Joseph is considered to be the conduit, or chariot, for the Sefira of Yesod. The term chariot means that through his actions he opened the gate between this world and the upper world to allow the energy of Zeir Anpin to become revealed.
Through his dreams – of the seven fat cows and seven skinny cows – Joseph was able to foresee the coming of a great famine. He took tremendous measures to preserve enough food to sustain the entire world during that difficult time. As a result, enough food was stored to last beyond this period of despair. Joseph’s actions are not a historical chronicling, rather an allegory to illustrate the means by which the spiritual system operates. Joseph and the Sefira of Yesod are described in the Zohar as the sustainers.
When we give Tzedakah we, in essence, become like Joseph the sustainer. Rav Berg says, however, that Tzedakah, which is the only precept that is described as saving one from death, is not the same thing as simply giving. As Rav Berg explains “What makes Tzedakah different from the concept of giving is that Tzedakah is the giving to a poor person. When giving to a poor person, with the consciousness of Tzedakah, one can remove the decree of death.”
The clue to unravelling this mystery is found in the word itself. The last letter of the word Tzedakah is the letter Hei. The letter Hei at the end of the word Tzedakah represents the Sefira of Malchut. For the giving to be considered Tzedakah, for the giver to be a sustainer, at the level of Yesod, the recipient must be like Malchut – having nothing of their own – a poor person.
In this way, when one performs the precept of giving Tzedakah, one takes on the role of the sustainer like Joseph, by opening up the channel for Light to flow to Malchut. This brings an abundance of Light to this world, creating a spiritual effect through our physical actions. In the structure of Kabbalah, physical actions evoke spiritual effects. It is like puppets on a string, although in this instance, the puppet, not the puppeteer, is pulling the strings. By changing and moving and effecting changes down here, we move the spiritual realm. That is the way that the kabbalists explain that we become the cause or the source of the Light that is revealed.
Moreover, in being the cause of this action, the giver elevates to the level of Yesod and leaves the dimension where death exists. As Rav Berg explains:
“When one assumes the position of sustainer, he is connecting to Yesod. Yesod is part of the flawless universe where death, sickness, and all forms of chaos do not exist. Tzedakah is, thus, a powerful tool to connect to the other worlds. When giving Tzedakah, one stands in the place of the Sun. As we know, the Sun is the source of all life. God created all people for the benefit of those who have nothing and can't buy the things they need. And the poor are the opportunity for the people of the world to give Tzedakah.”
We can see from this that the notion of charity saving one from death is not a game played on us by religious institutions, but an ancient technology rooted in scriptures of all religions, decoded by the Zohar.
God did not put us here on Earth to be the effect of the dimension where death exists. Instead, he provided a method through which we can elevate ourselves from the clutches of death. Tzedakah is the very instrument that enables us to make this elevation, and in doing so, take control of our lives and our destinies.