I recently learned a piece of Torah that opened up my conception of what tzedakah is and what tzedakah does. The Lubavitcher Rebbe has pointed out that tzedakah does not mean charity, it means “justness,” from the word “tzedek,” Rather than being an act that raises me up in my own estimation, tzedakah means doing what is right, becoming a messenger for Hashem, a vessel through which Hashem is allowing His mercy to be drawn into the world. The recipient, in turn, goes from being seen as a nebach to becoming a vessel through whom Hashem is bringing the opportunity to give. And, on top of all of that, because tzedakah is connected to kindness, the giving forges a relationship.
In the Gemara, Shabbos (156), we read the famous story of Rabbi Akiva’s daughter. Although it had been foretold that she would die from a snake bite on her wedding day, she did not. In fact, she killed the snake that had been destined to bite her when she stuck her hairpin into the wall for safekeeping. When she woke up the next morning and pulled her hairpin out of the wall, the dead snake came out with it! Rabbi Akiva wanted to know what extraordinary thing she had done the day before to merit such a miraculous salvation. It turned out that while everyone else was busy at her wedding, a pauper had shown up looking for some food. Although she was the bride, she was the only one who noticed the poor man. She took her own plate of food over and gave it to him. Rabbi Akiva saw this act of tzedakah, going beyond herself and reaching out to another person in kindness, as the one that changed her destiny. As he pointed out, it says in Mishlei that tzedakah saves from death.
The word that the Gemara uses for “give” in this story is “yehavis” which is a common Aramaic word, found hundreds of times throughout the teachings of Chazal. And yet, it always makes me think of one of my favorite torahs. The very first word of the 10 Commandments is Anochi, I. The Gemara, (Shabbos 105), quotes Rabbi Yochanan who said that Anochi is an acronym for אֲנָא נַפְשִׁי כְּתַבִית יְהַבִית- “I have put myself into my writings and given them to you.”
The Alter Rebbe explains that this means that opening any sefer and reading the words inside forges an immediate connection between us and Hashem- because Hashem “gave Himself” to us in these words. His very Essence is to be found in them.
But the fact that the word יְהַבִית, give, is used both here and in the context of Rabbi Akiva’s daughter’s act of tzedakah connects the two. It helps us to understand that Hashem gave Himself to us as an act of tzedakah. And tzedakah saves from death.
Tzedakah saves both the giver and the recipient. On one hand, the giver is saved because by opening up to another human being, the giver feeds her own soul and the basic human need for connection. On the other, the receiver is saved from starvation- whether physical, emotional or both.
In our understanding of Hashem’s act of tzedakah, He is the Giver and we are the receivers. In some ways, in giving us a guidebook through which to relate to Him, Hashem, kivyachol, “saved” Himself by enabling us to reach out for Him and have a relationship with Him. He also saved us through this same act- since Torah nourishes our spiritual starvation. By “giving” Himself to us in this way, Hashem actually modeled the mechanism that we can use every single day to save ourselves and each other. And since we are created in His image, we all have this ability ingrained in us.
When we give tzedakah- whether it is money, time, food, a shoulder to cry on, or an open heart with which to listen to another person- we are acting in that image. When we give of ourselves, we are building a relationship with another person. And, in doing so, we are saving lives- both our own and the person to whom we are giving.
The very nature of the situation we have been in for the past six months is one of separation and isolation. But as we enter into the month of Elul, I give us all a bracha to be able to re-open ourselves and to look for and find new ways of connecting-learning together, baking for each other, waving and saying hello on the streets, talking to each other in whatever way we can. In doing these things, I bless each and every one of us to understand that we are agents of Hashem’s tzedakah and to feel the life-giving energy that brings into our souls.