"Charity elevates a nation": Rabbi Kook's teachings on charity

Review of a book that explains the deeper cosmic effect of a Jew's act of charity.

Tags: Tzvi Fishman
Tzvi Fishman

Judaism Tzvi Fishman
Tzvi Fishman

With the holiday of Shavuot approaching, and with Book Week beginning in Israel soon afterward, it is a good time to draw people’s attention to a new book which deals with the subject of charity and its importance to the world, one of the main themes of the Story of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot.

The book, called “Charity Elevates a People,” is a study of Rabbi Kook’s exalted teachings about charity, with an enlightening commentary by Rabbi Tzvi Yisrael Tau.

Every human being created in the “image of G-d” has a natural feeling of compassion for the poor and needy, including a natural desire to help them, Rabbi Kook writes. This being the case, why does the Torah command us to give charity?

It turns out that giving charity doesn’t only help the poor person, it elevates the giver and the entire Israeli Nation to a higher Divine level. When a non-Jew gives charity it is a praiseworthy act, in accord with a person’s natural feelings of compassion and concern for the downtrodden. When a Jew gives charity, not just because of his natural human inclination, but in order to perform the will of Hashem, he or she becomes attached to the Divine will for the world and uplifts all of Creation, thus fulfilling his mission as a part of the Israelite Nation whose goal is to bring Divine Perfection into the world.

Rabbi Kook teaches that if Israel would to perform charity out of the same motivations and natural feelings of the nations, it would be a “sin.” For the Jewish People, “charity must be performed" for a greater purpose, "for the honor of G-d, blessed be He, and to align themselves with His great Will. This gives witness to the exalted level of Israel. For the People of Israel, even human perfection, which is a lofty achievement for every person, does not suffice for them because of the superiority of their perfection.”

Rabbi Kook teaches that poverty musty exist in the world in “accordance with the degree of its usefulness” in elevating mankind by refining its traits of kindness and compassion, and in elevating Israel to connect Heaven and Earth by aligning their will with the Will of G-d. Thus the Creator decreed, “The poor will not cease from the Land” (Devarim, 15:11).  

Rabbi Kook writes: “Poverty must necessarily exist in the world in order to connect people to each other with bonds of love and compassion...
Poor people play an important role in the world. More than we help them, they help us to attach ourselves to the Divine blueprint, benefiting us and all of existence. Therefore, we should never view the poor in a disparaging manner.

In explaining this point, Rabbi Tau tells a story about the Chofetz Chaim who once gave a generous gift of charity to a seemingly healthy and normal young man who extended his hand on the street and requested a donation. The son of the renowned Rabbi protested, “Why did you give him charity? He’s young and strong. Let him go work!”  The Chofetz Chaim responded, “You don’t understand a basic concept. If Heaven has decreed that this person should be poor, and that this is his role in the world, then even if he makes a great effort, he will not be able to earn a living. Even though his body is strong, psychologically he is not equipped to deal with the pressure, or responsibilities, or demands of having a steady job. That is the way Hashem made him, and nothing he does will succeed.”  

Rabbi Kook explains that the phenomenon of poverty is required for the advancement of humanity in accordance with the Divine Plan, much like gravity. Certainly, man must do all he can to help the poor, and poor people should strive to help themselves, but poverty won’t disappear until the end of days, when a Divine blessing of material well being will be the inheritance of all mankind.

Rabbi Kook states: “The foundation of faith is to know that there is no situation of total lacking in existence. Every deficiency that we see, although it is a deficiency from our private outlook, it is not a lack at all, but an advantageous and beneficial foundation for the perfection of the whole.”

Therefore, Rabbi Kook writes: “Poverty must necessarily exist in the world in order to connect people to each other with bonds of love and compassion, in precise accordance with the measure needed to arouse, through its influence, the trait of generosity and empathy in the heart.”

The Torah is a Torah of kindness, and thus on Shavuot we read the Megillah that contains the Story of Ruth. Naomi shows kindness To Ruth, and Ruth to Naomi, and Boaz to Naomi and Ruth. Each of them respected the other, understanding that the person in need elevates the giver of kindness, even more than the poor person gains through the receiving of charity. T

he poor person’s poverty has a valuable effect on society. “In effect,” Rabbi Kook explains, “the poor person contributes greatly to the community with the service of his bitter life. It is indeed proper to support him in the fulfilment of his role and to gladden him in his difficult situation.”

Just as King David was the product of Boaz’s kindness to Ruth, by increasing our appreciation and performance of the mitzvah of kindness, we can hasten the arrival of Mashiach, son of David, as our Sages teach: “The People of Israel are restored, and Jerusalem redeemed, only through charity” (Tractate Shabbat 139A).

Happy Shavuot.  

The book “Charity Elevates a Nation” can be obtained by contacting: hyeshuot@gmail.com

Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Jewish Culture and Creativity. Before making Aliyah to Israel in 1984, he was a successful Hollywood screenwriter. He has co-authored 4 books with Rabbi David Samson, based on the teachings of Rabbis A. Y. Kook and T. Y. Kook. His other books include: "The Kuzari For Young Readers" and "Tuvia in the Promised Land". His books are available on Amazon.Recently, he directed the movie, "Stories of Rebbe Nachman."