Why Giving Truly is Receiving

An old Christian proverb proclaims that it is “better to give than to receive.” By contrast, in Judaism, we believe that to give is to receive! This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Terumah, inspires us with this timeless and important message.

Parshat Terumah begins with G-d instructing Moshe (Moses) to tell the Israelites to contribute something to the construction of the Tabernacle where the tablets of the Ten Commandments will be kept and G-d’s presence will dwell. G-d’s word-choice in saying: “Speak to the Children of Israel and let them take Me a donation” is curious. Our rabbis ask why the verse says to take for me a donation. Why not simply instruct the Jewish people to give a donation? Sforno comments that this command was directed to the tribal leaders, who were expected to take or collect voluntary donations rather than levy a tax on the populace.[1]

However, there is another interpretation that demonstrates how this verse is meant to illustrate the Torah’s view of giving. The Midrash (Midrash Rabbah Leviticus 34) teaches that: “More than the benefactor benefits the pauper, the pauper benefits the benefactor.”[2] Expanding on this idea, MeAm Lo’ez explains that “when one gives a poor person a gift, he is not really giving, but taking. What the donor gives the beggar is limited and temporary, and it eventually vanishes. The reward for giving the charity, however, is infinite and unlimited. It is something spiritual that endures forever in the world-to-come.”[3]

This concept fundamentally shapes how we view charitable giving. In Judaism giving charity or tzedaka is a mitzvah (Torah commandment). G-d created a world in which there are enough resources for everyone, but their distribution is in the hands of humanity. The Talmud (Baba Basra 10a) relates that the wicked Turnus Rufus once asked Rabbi Akiva, “If your God loves the poor so much, why then doesn’t He provide for them?” Rabbi Akiva responded that G-d could easily provide personally for the poor, but He chose to give us the merit of giving tzedaka (charity) to save us from Gehinnom (netherworld).[4] With this understanding we can see why charity is in fact, an inaccurate translation of the word, tzedaka.

Tzedaka actually means justice. Charity denotes giving when one is feeling inspired, generous, or ‘in the mood’ to give. Tzedeka, on the other hand, is an opportunity and an obligation to assist G-d in repairing a world fractured by economic disparity and strife. While a poor person and a worthy cause or institution certainly benefits from the generosity of the giver, the giver is actually gaining infinitely more by connecting with G-d through performing the mitzvah of tzedaka and thereby making the world a more G-dly place.

That’s not all. A recent study discussed in the journal, Science has shown that people are actually happier when spending money on gifts for others and/or making charitable contributions than they are when they are spending money on themselves! Unfortunately, many spend a disproportionately small amount of their income on things that benefit others.[5] By using the word take rather than give, the Torah is teaching us that giving is the gift that keeps on giving. The merit we earn for helping others will continue to accumulate interest for eternity so go on and be selfish…Give more!

[1] The Stone Edition Chumash, Artscroll, 445

[2] “Do You Get Charity?” Naftali Silberberg, Chabad.org

[3] The Torah Anthology. Me’Am Lo’ez “The Tabernacle” Exodus VI vol. 9, page 9

[4] “Supporting the Supporter” Aish.com

[5] “Do You Get Charity” Naftali Silberberg, Chabad.org

3 replies
  1. Stephen Richer
    Stephen Richer says:

    “That’s not all. A recent study discussed in the journal, Science has shown that people are actually happier when spending money on gifts for others and/or making charitable contributions than they are when they are spending money on themselves!”

    I’ve heard this before. Many times. But if man is a rational actor (and he is for the most part), then presumably he does whatever makes him happiest. If charity makes him happier than does spending on discretionary personal items (a massage or a TV), then why does almost everyone spend a far greater amount on TVs, massages, etc. than they do on charity?

    Two thoughts: 1) Charity has quick diminishing returns. After you give 5% of your wealth, it doesn’t contribute that much to your happiness to give another 5% or 10% or 15%. 2) These studies are bogus for the most part and people take infinitely more pleasure in buying a $3,000 flat screen plasma TV than they do in giving $3,000 to their local synagogue, advocacy group, or alma mater.

    Or else you have to say that man is not a rational economic actor. And I’d disagree.

  2. Zevy G
    Zevy G says:

    Maye read the study first or at least the article I cited that includes an excerpt. Anyway, piece was not meant to be an analysis of economics. That was just a side-note.


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