Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
when it is in your power to act. — Proverbs 3:27
Judaism tells a cautionary tale about charity – more specifically, about withholding charity. There was a wealthy Jewish businessman who consistently gave charity to a Jewish poor man. For years, the poor man would show up at the rich man’s home and leave with enough money to support his family.
One day, after the poor man made one of his regular visits, the wealthy man grew resentful and thought it was unfair that he had to support this poor man. It was his money after all – what right did the poor man have to expect a monthly handout?
The next time the poor man showed up at his door, the wealthy man informed him that he would not be giving him charity any longer. Despondent, the poor man went back to his family empty-handed. But, as God would have it, suddenly the poor man’s floundering business began to boom. In a short while he was earning more than enough money.
At the same time, the wealthy man experienced a turn in his fortune as well – but not for the good. His business suffered huge losses, and the once wealthy man found himself barely getting by. The distraught formerly wealthy man went to see his rabbi to ask why he experienced such a steep loss. The rabbi explained that the wealthy man had been entrusted by God with the poor man’s money. It was his job to distribute it. Since he didn’t want the job, God took the money away and gave it directly to the poor man himself.
In Proverbs we read: “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.” In Hebrew, the word used to mean “charity” is the word tzedakah. However, the Jewish sages point out that “charity” is an insufficient translation of the word tzedakah. The word tzedakah comes from the word tzedek which means “justice.” A more accurate definition would be “righteousness.”
According to Judaism, when we give charity we are not being kind; we are being just. We are returning to the poor person what is rightfully his and what God has given us to steward. This is why Proverbs cautions us against withholding what we have to give; it isn’t ours to begin with.
In Deuteronomy 15:10 we learn, “Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart.” If we think our money is ours, it can lead to resentful giving. But when we recognize that all we have is from God in order to use for His purposes, we can give generously and with love, grateful for the opportunity to be God’s partner, a lender and not a borrower.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President