Can there be charity without poverty?
The world is on a warpath to eradicate poverty. Many billionaires, and wealthy developed countries, are investing heavily in poorer countries and hope to eradicate poverty by 2030. If that happens, the question is, what will happen to charity? Will it become a thing of the past?
While we wish them every success and hope they will succeed, we can’t be certain they will. So, charity might still continue. However, our prophets foretold that in the Messianic era, there will certainly be no poverty. So, when that day comes, and may it be imminent, will charity disappear?
I can understand people who say yes. Charity is a function of need. If the world has no need, we can dispense with charity. The problem is that charity is not just a nice thing to do. It is a Mitzvah. And a Mitzvah cannot be eradicated. G-d’s commandments remain forever without change, addition, or diminishment. If there can be no charity without poverty, how will this Mitzvah survive?
Moreover, our sages taught that King David asked G-d why He created poverty. Couldn’t He just provide for everyone equally? G-d replied that it was to present us with the opportunity for kindness. This raises the question to an entirely new level. If there is no charity without poverty, what will happen to kindness?
The question is even more poignant. Our sages wrote that the world stands on three pillars, Torah study, Divine worship, and kindness. If there is no charity without poverty, the world could teeter and fall!
One rabbi offered a novel answer. The Torah states that redemption will come when “you walk with my decrees and guard my commandments.” Note that this passage delineates decrees and commandments. We walk with decrees, and we guard commandments. What does that mean?
Decrees are the suprarational commandments that we struggle to understand. Commandments are the logical imperatives that make sense to us. Maimonides taught that the sacrificial rite is a suprarational commandment—decrees. Charity, on the other hand, is a perfectly rational commandment.
Today, we can’t offer sacrifices because the Jewish Temple no longer stands. This raises a question: If Divine worship is one of the world’s pillars, how does the world stand today without our offerings? Our sages answered that when circumstances prevent us from performing a Mitzvah, we fulfill it by studying about it in the Torah. When we study the laws of an offering, it is as if we brought that offering.
Today, we perform the Mitzvah to give charity, and we learn about the Mitzvah to bring offerings. When Mashiach comes, this will be reversed. The Temple will be rebuilt, and we will resume our sacrificial rite. But poverty will be eradicated, and we will fulfill the Mitzvah of charity by learning about it in the Torah.
This is the meaning of walking with the decrees and guarding the commandments. To walk with something is to take it with you on the journey of life. When Mashiach comes, we will walk with the decrees—resume the sacrificial rite—and guard the rational commandment—charity. It will need to be guarded because poverty won’t ensure that it will be practiced. We will need to guard it (by studying about it in the Torah) to preserve the world’s pillar and to preserve G-d’s Mitzvah.
This answers the questions of how to perpetuate the Mitzvah and how to maintain the world’s third pillar. But it does not answer the question of how to preserve kindness. Talking and learning about kindness isn’t the same as practicing it. I am reminded of a man who came upon a gathering on the road. When he inquired about the reason for the gathering, he learned that a man had died and left his widow penniless. Everyone talked about how sad this was. This man announced, “I am sad ten dollars; how sad are you?
Talking about kindness doesn’t create kindness. Acts of kindness create kindness. If there is no charity without poverty, how will we preserve kindness when Mashiach comes?
Reb Avraham of Polotsk was a simple man, a follower of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the third Rebbe of Lubavitch, also known as the Tzemach Tzedek. One day he heard the Rebbe talk about the immense kindness of Abraham, who shared his time, energy, and money generously.
Reb Avraham did not understand the complex philosophy of the Rebbe’s teaching, but he did get the point. He returned to Polotsk, entered his friend Nachman’s store, and asked for a loan though he did not need one. He explained that he wanted to give him the opportunity to be like Abraham by practicing kindness. Word of this unique practice got around, and before long, all the Jewish merchants in Polotsk adopted it. They began to exchange free loans every day.
When Reb Avraham returned to Lubavitch, the Tzemach Tzedek asked to see him. He inquired about Reb Avraham’s charity practices, and Reb Avraham said that he was too poor to give much charity. The Tzemach Tzedek inquired about free loans, and the modest Avraham had no choice but to share that he had launched a new practice in the city. The Tzemach Tzedek would later say that when he peered into Reb Avraham’s face, he perceived a halo of Divine kindness.
The Talmud tells us that free loans are a form of kindness that can be practiced with both the poor and the wealthy.Wealthy people are often in need of loans for business transactions. Offering them a free loan is a powerful expression of kindness. When a poor person needs assistance, we are plagued by our conscience to help. When a wealthy person needs a loan, we can say to ourselves, let him borrow from the bank and pay interest. He can afford it. Yet, there is a Mitzvah to offer free loans even to those who are wealthy and don’t “need” it because they can afford to pay interest.
The merchants in Polotsk took this to a level by offering loans to people who didn’t even need a loan. This is how we will fulfill the Mitzvah of charity when Mashiach comes. We will offer each other free loans, not because we will need the money, but because we will need and want to practice kindness.
This is the highest form of kindness because it is completely altruistic. What’s better, we don’t need to wait for Moshiach to practice it. Let’s open our hearts and help one another freely. In turn, may G-d bring about the day when poverty will be eradicated forever.
There might be no charity without poverty, but there will always be plenty of kindness.