The Flow of Generosity: How Tzedekah Benefits Both the Receiver and the Giver

I love this piece by Sara Kupor, the JCC East Bay Shamash Resident, so much that I asked her permission (and the JCC’s) to republish it here. When I first learned about the work of the UCB Greater Good Science Center back in 2009 I was struck by how much their findings sound like rabbinic teachings. I guess those old rabbis were onto something! You know that I am a believer in living a contented and fulfilling life. YOU control your actions and therefore your generosity. Your generosity impacts your happiness.

The original of this post can be read here on the East Bay JCC website. Check them out.


The Flow of Generosity: How Tzedekah Benefits Both the Receiver and the Giver

What is the difference between heaven and hell? In a parable attributed to Rabbi Haim of Romshishok, heaven and hell share an identical, if unusual, quality. In both realms, people are forced to eat with long, unwieldy spoons. The difference, however, arises in what comes next. In hell, people refuse to cooperate, and consequently everyone starves. In heaven, people generously feed one another across the table, and thus everyone is well nourished.

The message of this parable—by being generous, my needs are met—is really about the importance of tzedakah. Our tradition encourages us to think about tzedakah at many different times throughout the calendar year, but we are especially called upon to reflect upon this mitzvah as we prepare for Rosh Hahanah and Yom Kippur.

In Hebrew, the word tzedakah means “righteousness” or “justice.” When we give tzedakah, whether it be in the form of money, time, energy, or possessions, we may understand it as giving righteously or justly. Generosity can also be thought of in terms of a spacious heart, an attitude of embracing each person and experience with a positive spirit, and an approach of living “life with arms wide open” (as Natasha Bedingfield expresses in her song, “Unwritten”).

According to research from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley, humans have evolved such that they are born with the biological hardware necessary for generosity. In particular, our brains and hormones are actually wired to help others and feel good while doing so. For example, older adults who regularly volunteer report feelings of “greater quality of life, vitality, and self esteem.” Furthermore, generosity research in animals suggests that prosocial behavior may in fact be an evolutionary adaptation that has promoted species survival (Allen, Summer, “The Science of Generosity,” May 2018).

In recent years, scientists have begun learning more about brain neuroplasticity. According to psychologist Dr. Tara Brach, “We know that… when we consistently practice new actions we can actually rewire the structure and the function of our brain” (“What We Practice Grows Stronger,” Psychology Today, May 2018).

Taken together, this research suggests that humans have evolved to be generous, our brains and hormones are hardwired to practice and respond to this skill, and generosity rewards the giver, as well as the receiver.

Our rabbis knew these truths long before scientists came along. Maimonides, the great Medieval Jewish philosopher, said that “virtues of character come with repetition of right action” (Orchot Tzadikim). And if a person gives one coin to a thousand poor people, “through this he will surely acquire generosity,” says Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe in his work Alei Shur, volume 28. Thus, right action will be repeated one thousand times.

Tzedekah has indeed ensured the survival and health of the Jewish community. Being a part of the Jewish community means that each one of us bears a responsibility to ensure the welfare of everyone else in the community. Deeds of tzedekah are mitzvot, or “holy commandments,” so they have the same obligatory status as honoring Shabbat or not wasting natural resources.

Another interesting idea comes from the Mussar movement, which is a Jewish ethical, educational, and cultural movement that developed in 19th century Lithuania. Alan Morinis, a contemporary teacher of Mussar, wrote: “The human heart is naturally inclined to give… the heart’s inclination is to be spontaneous generous.” (Everyday Holiness, 2007). When our hearts are closed, we are the first to suffer from that closure. According to the Midrash Tanhuma, even the poor person must give tzedekah. Why? Because no one should be denied the joy one derives from performing this mitzvah! The immediate consequence of giving is to “sense G-d’s presence.“

In Hebrew, the phrase “and they shall give” (“v’natnu”) is a palindrome, a word that reads the same forwards or backwards (vav, nun, tuv, nun, vav). As Morinis writes in Everyday Holiness, this is the flow of generosity.

A deeper understanding of the word “mitzvah” may come from examining the Arabic root of the word, which means “to connect.” In this sense, we may say that mitzvot help us connect to Holiness and to one another.

We have seen how generosity positively influences the quality of our lives, and repeated acts of tzedekah integrate it into our brain pathways. These are aspects of the wonder and genius of our spiritual heritage.

May we be blessed to practice generosity, and as we do so, simultaneously ensure our personal vitality and the vitality of our communities.

Blessings for a Shana Tova u’Metuka (a Good and Sweet Year),
Sara Ross Kupor, JCC East Bay Shamash Resident