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THE WORK OF GIVING : R. Elazar Mordechai Kenig

TRANSFORMING CRUELTY INTO COMPASSION

There is an aspect of charity that is virtually unknown in the world. Aside from the actual deed of giving charity—tzedakah—there is a mandatory stage through which everyone must pass. G-d tells Elijah the Prophet, “I commanded the ravens to sustain you…”[1] Rebbe Nachman relates this to the idea of tzedakah, since when we begin to give charity, it is very difficult. But just as G-d commanded the ravens, which are considered to be cruel, to feed Elijah, we must undergo a phase of breaking whatever innate cruelty we possess in our nature and transform it to compassion. This is a fundamental principle in the “work” of tzedakah.

It is written: “And the deed of tzedakah shall be peace, and the work of tzedakah shall be tranquility and security forever.”[2] The first part of this verse alludes to the actual deed of tzedakah; any time a person gives to another in need, this fulfills the mitzvah of tzedakah. However, there is another aspect to the mitzvah, called the “work” of tzedakah.

Rebbe Nachman highlights this concept through the second part of the verse “…and the work of tzedakah shall be tranquility and security forever.” Beyond the actual giving itself, the work of tzedakah consists of breaking any inherent cruel tendency in our personalities, and converting it into compassion.

If one gives charity because of their compassionate nature, where is the work? Even among animals, certain ones have a more compassionate nature than others. There are also some that are less compassionate, like the raven.[3] Thus G-d said to Elijah, “And I commanded the ravens to sustain you.” Even though the raven’s nature is cruel, it was transformed into compassion in order to sustain the Prophet Elijah. Likewise, anyone who gives any amount of charity out of inborn generosity must pass through this preliminary stage of breaking whatever point of cruelty, or lack of kindness and sympathy, they have within themselves and turn it into compassion.

Our compassion is certainly aroused when we see someone starving. In this case, it is clearly a mitzvah to offer assistance, and we are required to help. However, there is a higher level involved in giving tzedakah. Even a naturally generous heart must go through a stage of pushing beyond its inherently compassionate nature. This is accomplished by understanding where the compassionate tendency ends and the cruel one begins. Everyone has a limit where they say “ad kan—until here, and no more!” This point of cruelty is what requires effort to change. Precisely here is where effort is needed to break this selfishness and transform it into compassion through giving tzedakah. Without going through this stage, one hasn’t really done the work of tzedakah.

True tzedakah doesn’t only involve money. Tzedakah and doing kindness has many forms. For example, offering good advice can also help another person. We are all limited in certain situations and have different points where our compassion ends. The work of tzedakah is to push beyond our inborn tendencies, something which involves a deeper understanding of the nature of giving. Tzedakah is not solely dependent upon the compassion we feel at the moment. Rather, it is also connected to breaking through our personal limitations to give of ourselves more than our natural inclination dictates. In the final analysis, this is what we are bidden to do by our Creator.

The concept of transforming anger into compassion is discussed at greater length elsewhere by Rebbe Nachman.[4] In practical terms, this means that when we begin to get the least bit angry, we should be very careful to refrain from acting or speaking in an unkind way. Extreme care must be taken regarding all forms of anger since our Sages state, “One who breaks vessels in anger is like an idolator.”[5] Anger is mitigated through acting in the opposite way: “In wrath, remember to be merciful.”[6]

Of course, it is best never to become angry in the first place, but at least we must ensure that anger doesn’t lead to any harmful action or harsh words. It is vital to remember to restrain ourselves and act with compassion. It is written, “One who becomes angry gains nothing beyond the anger.”[7] Anger never accomplishes anything. Even if one thinks something was achieved through anger, the truth is that it wasn’t the anger that accomplished it. Much more would have been gained without it.

CHARITY AND “LENGTH OF DAYS”

To understand this entire issue on a deeper level, Rebbe Nachman brings two concepts called “length of days” and “shortness of days.”[8] The first concept, “length of days,” is connected to the positive side of old age. Our sages teach that as people age, they acquire wisdom. Since every day needs more illumination, it is our task in life to bring more light into each day.[9] Every single day, a person should add more holiness, light, and awareness of the G-dly; one must increase daat (literally “knowledge,” but in this context, higher consciousness). Through this, the mind becomes progressively calmer and more settled.

Just as there is a process of development from childhood to adulthood, so we must grow spiritually from one level to the next on a daily basis. Practically, this means that we must strive to reach a higher spiritual level today than yesterday by adding something new to our service of G-d—hitchadshut.

The second concept, “shortness of days” is the opposite. As the verse states, “Mortal man’s days are short, full of anger.”[10] According to Rebbe Nachman, there are people who live long lives and thus appear to have attained “length of days.” Yet, since they blemished their days by neglecting to add to them more holiness and daat, they draw their spiritual vitality from the belief that there is nothing beyond nature (chochmat ha-teva). When days pass without renewal, this is the very opposite of “length of days” and the wisdom that comes with old age. Instead, it is considered, “shortness of days, full of anger.”

Rabbi Shmuel Isaac of Dashev, one of the great chassidim of Rebbe Nachman, once said that if he were to recite the Shema today the same as he did yesterday, he would have no reason to live. In order to grow spiritually, a person cannot remain on the same level. By living with renewal, one’s days are “long” in the sense that every day has more holiness and light than the previous one. On the other hand, if each day passes without any holiness being added, a person exists within the context of “shortness of days, full of anger.”

A life of routine without renewal brings irritation and upset. Rebbe Nachman offers a remedy through our doing the “work” of tzedakah. By subduing and breaking the innate point of cruelty and converting it into compassion, a person repairs the damage caused by living a life without renewal, known as “shortness of days.”

A happy and satisfying existence in this world depends upon knowing that everything comes from G-d. This means believing that G-d created the world in the way He desired, above the dictates of natural law. Even though He utilized the laws of nature to create the world, He preceded everything. Nothing either obligated Him to create the world, or to continue to sustain and support it. These are all principles of faith.

A person with faith can accept and cope with anything that happens in life without getting upset, or losing one’s sanity, G-d forbid. A loss of faith sometimes occurs when one is unable to see that everything comes from G-d, and instead imagines there is some other force running the world. It appears that others have a better life, causing one to become angry, jealous, or hateful, and entrapped in the narrow confines of “shortness of days, full of anger.” This may be considered by some as an inevitable part of life, but anger and pain are the very opposite of life. True life in this world is serenity—the calm and settled mind that comes from “length of days.” Through faith and believing that everything comes from G-d, a person is able to add holiness, light, and daat to every day and every moment, acquiring wisdom and revealing compassion.

Based on Likutey Moharan Tinyana 4.


[1] I Kings 17:4

[2] Isaiah 32:17

[3] Tikkuney Zohar, Tikkun 70 (129b); R’ Chaim Vital, Pri Etz Chaim, Chazarat HaAmidah, Chap. 7; Likutey Torah (Arizal), Vayeshev

[4] Likutey Moharan 18:2

[5] Shabbat 105b

[6]Habakuk 3:2

[7] Kiddushin 40b

[8] Likutey Moharan Tinyana 4:8-9

[9] Kiddushin 32b

[10] Job 14:1

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