Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (Likutey Moharan II, 4) tells us there is an aspect to the mitzvah of charity that is virtually unknown in the world. Aside from the actual deed of charity (tzedaka) there is also the avodah of charity.
The word avodah means “work.” What is the work of tzedaka? Rebbe Nachman explains that when we begin to give charity it is very difficult because we must go through a phase in our spiritual development where we break the innate cruelty we possess and transform it into compassion. This is the fundamental inner work of tzedaka.
Any time a person gives to another in need, they fulfill the mitzvah of tzedaka. But beyond the actual giving itself, the work of tzedaka 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 avodah? Even among animals, some have a more compassionate nature than others. There are some that are less compassionate, like the raven. Similarly, anyone who gives charity out of inborn generosity is actually just doing what comes naturally, like an animal would do for its young. The avodah is to pass through this preliminary stage and give more than our natural tendency allows.
To illustrate, 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 tzedaka. 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 kahn – 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 by giving more. Without going through this stage, one hasn’t really done the “work” of tzedaka.
True tzedaka doesn’t only involve money. Tzedaka and doing kindness take many forms. For example, offering good advice can also help another person and is a form of tzedaka. We are all limited in certain situations and have different points where our compassion ends. The work of tzedaka is to push beyond our inborn tendencies, something that involves a deeper understanding of the nature of giving. Tzedaka is not solely dependent upon the compassion we feel at any given 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.
May Hashem help us to break through our natural inborn cruelty and transform it into compassion.