“Mitzvot were given only to purify people” (Breisheet Rabba 44). By refraining from gossip, not bearing a grudge, not giving misleading advice, by showing sensitivity to the orphan, widow, stranger and poor, paying our debts on time, willingly accepting rebuke, and by acting in ways that demonstrate our love towards others, we are able to embody the traits that are meant to define a Jew: rachamanim, baishanim and gomlei chasadim, merciful, sensitive[1] and performing acts of chesed.

While this is most obvious regarding mitzvot between man and man it is equally true of mitzvot between man and G-d. G-d has no need for our mitzvot. Rather, we need to develop our relationship with G-d in order that we become better people. The many mitzvot between man and G-d are meant to instill within us such notions as discipline, recognition of limits, proper respect for authority, awe of creation and the Creator, The way we treat others – all of whom are created in G-d’s image – reflects our relationship to G-d and thus every “ritual” has an ethical idea embedded within the mitzva. Keeping shabbat means ensuring our employees have time to rest, eating matza reminds us that we must never enslave others, fasting on Yom Kippur teaches the need to help the poor- and on and in it goes. Our prophets railed against empty ritual, one devoid of ethical growth – it being worse than no ritual at all.

Furthermore, by helping others, even by helping ourselves, society as a whole benefits. Imagine a society in which people not only do not gossip, do not bear grudges, do not give misleading advice, show sensitivity to the orphan, widow, stranger and poor, pay debts on time, willingly accept rebuke, and act in ways that demonstrate our love towards others. And imagine if most went a step further and acted in ways that embody hayashar vehatov, the straight and the good (Devarim 6:18), which our Sages understood as acting lifnim meshurat hadin, going beyond the letter of the law, thereby avoiding legal disputes and creating a more peaceful society.  

Yet if someone were to do mitzvot not because they were interested in helping others, nor to foster a better society, but to help themselves, we might view that as a mitzva shelo lishma, doing what is right but for the wrong reason. Such is natural, normal, even inevitable at times, but is far from ideal. Yet with action being – with rare exception[2] – more important than intent, we can forgo the ideal even as we hope repeated positive action will lead to more noble intent.

Thus it is rather surprising that the mitzva of tzedakah seems to be an exception. “One who says this sela is for charity so that my children may live, and (or?) so I may merit life in the World-to-Come, he is a tzadik gamur, a completely righteous person” (Rosh Hashanah 4a). Having an ulterior motive in the giving of tzedakah[3] earns one the title not just of a tzadik, but that of a tzadik gamur. How might we explain this?

That tzedakah is somehow different can already be seen in the Torah where we are told that the giving of tzedakah will bestow upon us G-d’s blessing. “You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him; for biglal, because of this thing the Lord, your God, will bless you in all your work and in all your endeavors” (Devarim 15:10). Fascinatingly, the only other time the Torah offers a “blessing” for performing a mitzvah is a few verses earlier in discussing the giving of tithes, another form of the mitzvah of tzedakah[4].

And hence our Sages had no compunction in noting that they were at least partially motivated by personal benefit in the giving of tzedakah. “Rabbi Chiyya said to his wife: When a poor person comes [to the house] be quick to give him bread so that they will be quick [to give bread] to your children” (Shabbat 151b). His wife was taken aback, asking if he was cursing his own children that they should be poor and in need of tzedakah. Rav Chiyya basically answered yes. It is not him but the Torah- life itself- that does such. Using a play on the word biglal, that the giving of tzedakah is rewarded, and galgal, a wheel, our Sages teach that wealth is a galgal hachozer baolam, a wheel that turns in this world. A family may be blessed with great wealth for a generation or two, or even three – ironically, perhaps as a reward for being charitable – but inevitably the tables will be turned and the descendants of those who gave so graciously will be in need themselves. As our Sages note “if he does not come [to a state of poverty], his son will, and if his son does not come his grandson will” (Shabbat 151b).

Counter-intuitively, it is precisely because “the poor will never cease from the land” (Devarim 15:11) that we are commanded to give tzedakah, “Therefore, I command you, saying, you shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your poor one, and to your needy one in your land”. We are obligated to help those in need. Not because that will rid the world of poverty, although that does not mean we should not try, but because when someone is in need we must help. It is not for us to calculate about the global impact our actions may or may not have. We must do what we must do – and if others do the same much will be accomplished. And if that is not motivation enough then the realization that you or your loved ones will one day be in need should motivate you to help others.

The Torah understood how difficult it is to just give away money to others. Why should those who worked hard, who earned the money they have, who paid their tithes (taxes) give away more to others – many of whom will just come back for more[5],[6].  It is not easy to give away that which we feel is ours. Perhaps it is due to this difficulty that the Torah not only offers great blessings, but frames it as part of our own self-interest.

While the Torah promises blessing, the prophets promise redemption: “Zion shall be redeemed through tzedakah” (Yishayahu 1:26). And the Rambam goes further, ruling that tzedakah is the “positive mitzva that we must be most careful about as tzedakah is the sign of the righteous descendants of our patriarch Abraham” (Matanot Aneeyim 10:1).

How wonderful when our personal interests and those of the society at large are one and the same.


[1] I have translated baishanim as sensitive which incorporates - yet includes more than the standard translation of a sense of shame.

[2] The main exception is that of people in public office, whose decisions impact on the public at large. As by definition these decisions will (hopefully) help many but inevitably harm (hopefully only) a few, it is crucial these decisions are done with the best of intentions. Having personal motives outweigh the public interest in the decision-making process means that one is personally responsible for the harm caused. It is why I strongly believe that personal character traits are by far the most important issue in deciding whom to vote for – much more important than one’s view on any particular issue.  

[3] In fact, it is only by having an ulterior motive that corporations are allowed to give tzedakah. As the corporation has a fiduciary duty to its shareholders it has no right to give away money that is not “theirs” – unless the shareholders give explicit permission. However, if the charity has as its primary or even secondary motive the promotion of the corporate brand such charity can be seen as a strategic investment and hence permissible. For this reason, corporate donations must be given with as much publicity as possible. There is no requirement for a corporation, a fictitious legal entitle, to display humility.

[4] While the Torah does occasionally mention rewards for mitzvot, including that of long life, as far as I can tell it is only by the mitzvot of tzedakah and maasarot that the Torah uses the language of bracha.

[5] While tzedakah is best when given as an investment in job creation we are nonetheless obligated to help even those who have little interest in helping themselves.

[6] This explains why only 20% of Canadians donated to charity in 2017, the last year I could find records for – that is down from 25% in 2006 with a median donation of $300. (See here for details.)