The Work of Giving : Transforming Cruelty into Compassion


by HaRav Elazar Mordechai Kenig, shlita

There is an aspect of charity that is virtually unknown in the world. Aside from the actual deed of giving charity (tzedakah) there is a mandatory stage through which everyone must pass. God tells Elijah the Prophet, “I commanded the ravens to sustain you…” (I Kings 17:4) Rebbe Nachman relates this to the idea of tzedakah, since when we begin to give charity, it is very difficult. But just as God commanded the ravens, which are considered to be cruel, to feed Elijah, we must undergo a phase of breaking whatever innate cruelty we possess in our nature and transform it to compassion. This is fundamental principle in the “work” of tzedakah.

It is written: “And the deed of tzedakah shall be peace, and the work of tzedakah shall be tranquility and security forever.” (Isaiah 32:17) The first part of this verse alludes to the actual deed of tzedakah. Any time a person gives to another in need, this fulfills the mitzvah of tzedakah. However, there is another aspect to the mitzvah, called the “work” of tzedakah.

Rebbe Nachman highlights this concept through the second part of the verse, “…and the work of tzedakah shall be tranquility and security forever.” Beyond the actual giving itself, the work of tzedakah consists of breaking any inherent cruel tendency in our personalities, and converting it into compassion.

If one gives charity because of their compassionate nature, where is the work? Even among animals, certain ones have a more compassionate nature than others. There are also some that are less compassionate, like the raven. (Tikkuney Zohar, Tikkun 70 (129b); R’ Chaim Vital, Pri Etz Chaim, Chazarat HaAmidah, Chap. 7; Likutey Torah (Arizal), Vayeshev. Thus God said to Elijah, “And I commanded the ravens to sustain you.” Even though the raven’s nature is cruel, it was transformed into compassion in order to sustain the Prophet Elijah. Likewise, anyone who give any amount of charity out of inborn generosity must pass through this preliminary stage of breaking whatever point of cruelty, or lack of kindness and sympathy, they have within themselves and turn it into compassion.

Our compassion is certainly aroused when we see someone starving. In this case, it is clearly a mitzvah to offer assistance, and we are required to help. However, there is a higher level involved in giving tzedakah. Even a naturally generous heart must go through a stage of pushing beyond its inherently compassionate nature. This is accomplished by understanding where the compassionate tendency ends and the cruel one begins. Everyon has a limit where they say “ad kahn–until here, and no more!” This point of cruelty is what requires effort to change. Precisely here is where effort is needed to break this selfishness and transform it into compassion through giving tzedakah. Without going through this stage, one hasn’t really done the work of tzedakah.

True tzedakah doesn’t only involve money. Tzedakah and doing kindness has many forms. For example, offering good advice can also help another person. We are all limited in certain situations and have different points where our compassion ends. The work of tzedakah is to push beyond our inborn tendencies, something which involves a deeper understanding of ┬áthe nature of giving. Tzedakah is not solely dependent upon the compassion we feel at the moment. Rather, it is also connected to breaking through our personal limitations to give of ourselves more than our natural inclination dictates. In the final analysis, this is what we are bidden to do by our Creator.

[Based on Likutey Moharan Tinyana 4. Excerpted from the original article first published in Tzaddik Magazine, Winter 2013.]