While giving charity appears to be one of the fundamental good deeds a person may perform, it is, in all honesty, one of the hardest. Our possessions, our wealth, our outward signs of success, are all part of how we define ourselves. Additionally, physical possessions make us feel more secure in an often chaotic world. So when a stranger or even a friend asks for something – a donation, a free meal – a person’s natural inclination for self-preservation pipes in.
And yet, giving tzedakah might actually be just what is needed for self-preservation. The Talmud (Gittin 7a) says: In the yeshiva of Rabbi Yishmael it was taught: Whoever “shears” off part of his wealth and gives it to charity will be delivered from the judgment of Gehinnom. This may be compared to two sheep crossing a river, one sheared and the other not sheared; the sheared one makes it across, the unsheared one does not.
Why was the unsheared sheep unable to successfully cross the river? Because the untrimmed wool became waterlogged and weighed the sheep down.
This idea is articulated in modern terms by the statement, “You can’t take it with you.” At the end of the day, hoarding one’s wealth provides no benefit or protection for a person. Stinginess weighs a person down, and inhibits one from becoming a better person.
Giving tzedakah, on the other hand, offers a person a chance to go beyond him/herself and to recognize that helping someone else is the true wealth of life.