Charity. Do you know what it means? Think about it for a second. What did you come up with? Probably something to do with giving? That SOUNDS right, but is it specific enough? If I give you my broken pencil can I be said to be charitable for instance?
There are many “short words” like charity that are often considered “virtues”. We know when we hear the word charity that it is something good in the sense it is done out of kindness. We know it involves giving, and we probably think about something to do with the poor. We usually do not see OURSELVES as recipients of charity, or if we do, we find it to be a disagreeable position in which to be. We do not like finding ourselves to be in NEED of charity, but rather we think of it typically in terms of SOMEONE ELSE who needs it.
This, I will argue, is a wrong-headed view of charity. We are all recipients of charity whether we think we are or not. The reason we are a recipient of charity is because we are alive. Have we done anything to deserve to be alive? No. Not really. You can’t earn life. See my previous post for details on that. Life is given. One can view it as given on one level by mother and father–and on another by the universe. Even when one’s parents suck, there is still a high level of charity involved–especially for the mother. She has to go through labor to bring new life here. Such an act, that is to say to suffer for the sake of another’s life, is an act of charity. It is kindness given without thought to self. If a mother where to think solely of herself, she would realize the pain of labor is not worth it.
However, charity need not involve suffering. Charity actually involves the relief of suffering. It keeps the wheels of the universe greased. So, for example, if a person has been fortunate enough to have a lot of material comfort, charity would suggest that giving some of that material stuff to others in a way that helps them make the most of life would be good not just for the recipient but for the one doing the giving. The one doing the giving need not lord the giving over the head of those who are receiving. This would be an example of an act of charity from a sense of selfishness. If one gives to receive appreciation, accolades, or otherwise to elevate one’s self above the recipient, or to make the recipient feel indebted, one has not acted charitably but instead has acted selfishly. Likewise, giving stuff away that one doesn’t want is not the same as being charitable. Charity seeks to provide that which is needed out of sense of kindness to establish an end. It may be more charitable, as the Bible suggests, to teach a man to fish than it is to give him the fish. Knowledge is a form of charity. The right knowledge is the ultimate form of charity.
The Torah discusses being charitable in such a way that the recipient does not feel shamed. In other words, it is better to give in an anonymous sort of way than it is to give in a way where the person knows who did the giving. Part of the reason is because when one is in a situation where they need charity from others, their self-esteem begins to suffer. It becomes easy for people to feel less like people when they are going without the essentials of life. Imagine for a moment that you do not have the means or the ability in a recognized societal way to give yourself the clothes you need or the food necessary. How would you feel? How would others treat you? If someone gave you something, would you feel grateful or embarrassed or a bit of both? How would you feel if the benefactor in question gave you something, and then treated you as though you owed them something for their generosity? The essence of charity is making sure not to fall into any of these potential pitfalls. It is done out of kindness, and it is done to establish an end. It is done preferably secretly. Obviously, in the case of something like teaching, that isn’t as possible. However, when it comes to teaching, that is one act of charity that people accept more quickly than most without feeling bad because what is giving is an intangible that can lead to tangibles. If one has the knowledge, one can make the rest happen. Knowledge is always the end goal anyway–specifically self knowledge. Extreme poverty and deprivation can impede that process. It is hard to come to self-mastery if one is starving in the streets. The physical needs must be addressed and taken care of, and it is our duty as fellow human beings traveling on the road to help those we can. It is not our duty to see someone bad off and blow past them in our fancy Ferrari and throw an empty beer bottle at them, or blame them for their plight. Such actions not only deny the other person charity, but ultimately one’s self. One cannot have what one does not understand. One cannot do what one does not understand how to do. Understanding little words like “charity” is a good start toward appreciating not only others, but ourselves.