Charity is not Jewish. At the grave risk of exacerbating the unfounded, anti-Semitic stereotype that Jews are stingy I'm going to argue that the concept of giving charity does not exist in Judaism.
Most every religion or value system on the planet encourages adherents to give charity and many people think it is praiseworthy to be generous out of the goodness of one's heart. Not Judaism. "Tis better to give than to receive" is a Christian proverb. Not a Jewish one.
The concept of charity does not exist in Judaism. The closest word to charity in Hebrew is tzedakah, but this is an inaccurate translation. Tzedakah actually means justice. Charity denotes giving when one is feeling inspired, generous, or 'in the mood' to give. Tzedakah, on the other hand, is an opportunity and an obligation to assist G-d in repairing a world fractured by economic strife and disparity.
This message is communicated to us in the Torah reading of this week. The Torah portion, Parshat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19), begins with G-d instructing the Jewish people to contribute something of value toward the construction of the Tabernacle where the tablets of the Ten Commandments will be kept. However the phrasing of this instruction is curious. The Torah reads: "Speak to the Children of Israel and let them take for Me a donation." Why didn't G-d tell the Jewish people to give a donation rather than use the odd phrase of 'take for Me a donation?'
The Me'Am Lo'ez, an exhaustive Torah commentary originally written in Ladino, beautifully helps us understand this verse. "When one gives a poor person a gift, he is not really giving, but taking," explains Me'Am Lo'ez. "What the donor gives the beggar is limited and temporary, and it eventually vanishes. The reward for giving the charity, however, is infinite and unlimited. It is something spiritual that endures forever in the world-to-come." This interpretation is based on a much earlier Jewish source -- a Midrash -- that proclaims: "More than the benefactor benefits the pauper, the pauper benefits the benefactor."
What we learn from this week's Torah portion is clear. When you give to another person, do not have the attitude that you are being such a wonderful person for helping the less fortunate. As much as the other person needs your help, it is you who benefits most, because through giving to another you are drawn closer to G-d -- the ultimate giver and your nature is thus transformed to become more G-dly.
While a poor person and a worthy cause or institution certainly benefits from the generosity of the giver, the giver is actually gaining infinitely more by connecting with G-d through performing the mitzvah of tzedaka and thereby making the world a more G-dly place.
Some of us may wonder why G-d created wealth disparity or neediness at all. The truth is G-d actually created a world in which there are enough resources for everyone, but their distribution is in the hands of humanity. The Talmud (Baba Basra 10a) relates that the wicked Turnus Rufus once asked Rabbi Akiva, "If your God loves the poor so much, why then doesn't He provide for them?" Rabbi Akiva responded that G-d could easily provide personally for the poor, but He chose to give us the merit of giving tzedaka..."
The Torah teaches us that giving is the gift that keeps on giving. The merit we earn for helping others will continue to accumulate for eternity so go on and be selfish. Give.