I have heard from several different people that Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, the great—perhaps the last—paragon and teacher of the mussar movement, bemoaned what he saw as one of the more concerning challenges of contemporary Jewish life. “We are all tinokos shenishb’u [captive children] of mitzvas anashim melumadah [the unreflective, rote performance of mitzvos].”
Like much of Rabbi Wolbe’s ideas, this is a powerful and complex thought. It criticizes what he viewed as a very serious religious problem while at the same time recognizes that on some level criticism may be all he can offer. His reference to the halakhic concept of tinok shenishbah is telling. This legal principle has been used to explain and excuse religious violations by those who by virtue of circumstance do not know any better (BT, Shavuos 5a). A person raised without any exposure to Torah or traditional observance—indeed a person that has been formed in a cultural, social, and behavioral milieu incompatible with halakhic practice and values—cannot be expected to embrace Torah norms, nor can they be faulted for failing to do so (see Mishnah Torah, Hilkhos Maamrim 3:3; Resp. Binyan Tzion,, no. 23).
Rabbi Wolbe recognized something I suspect many others have noticed. We are to some degree an orphaned generation. Not just us, of course; this has been true for some time. It is perhaps connected to some tendencies that Rabbi Dr. Chaim Soloveitchik identified in his important essay, Rupture and Reconstruction. At some point, even the most scrupulous and traditionally observant Jews stopped engaging Jewish observance in a mindful way. And once that happened, subsequent generations were doomed to grow up in a Jewish world in which mitzvas anashim melumadah (see Yeshayahu 29:13) was the norm. Indeed, at some point we stopped being able to appreciate what the alternative might even look like. We became tinokos shenishb’u to mitzvas anashim melumadah.
It is not our fault, perhaps. We can’t really be blamed for not knowing how to observe halakhah with engaged minds and hearts when we have not had anyone to model such behavior for us. But the deficiency remains.
The deficiency is evidenced, perhaps, by the plethora of religious movements—all wonderful, in my view—through which observant Jews today are grasping to regain some semblance of what it means to serve God and observe Torah with kavanah.
The mitzvah of tzedakah presented in this week’s parshah gives us some helpful ways of thinking about what mindful, intentional religious observance might look like and entail.
The Torah sets a famously high standard for our obligation to give charity to our needy and less fortunate brothers and sisters. “If there is a needy person among your brethren . . . you shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand . . . rather, you shall certainly open your hand to him and extend to him whatever he is lacking based on his needs” (Devarim 15:7-8).
Let’s focus on some of the particularities of this command.
Note that the obligation to provide charity includes at least two components; an action (“open your hand and extend to him”), as well as a sentiment (“you shall not harden your heart”).
Rote performance of the mitzvah is not enough. You can’t just give; the mere fact that money has left your possession and found its way to the hands of those in need is necessary, but not sufficient. God expects us to give with the proper mindset and generosity of spirit. “You shall not harden your heart.”
This mental/emotive aspect of the mitzvah of tzedakah isn’t just fluff. The Minchas Chinuch and others make clear that the entire purpose of the obligation to give tzedakah is to cultivate the positive character traits of kindness and compassion through a combination of though and deed. “The root of this commandment is that God wanted his creations to learn and become accustomed to the character traits of kindness and compassion” (Minchas Chinuch, no. 66). Recall Rabbi Akivah’s conversation with Turnus Rufus about charity. In response to Turnus Rufus’s questioning why a loving God does not provide for the poor, Rabbi Akivah explained that God allows for poverty in order to provide others with an opportunity to give charity (see BT, Bava Basra 10a). While this passage raises important questions about Divine providence, it also highlights that the Torah’s command to give charity aims at improving the humane and religious character of the giver.
Rabbenu Yonah makes a similar point. “[This mitzvah] cautions us to distance ourselves from the train of miserliness, and to become generous . . . it isn’t enough merely to give; instead, one must cultivate within one’s self a giving character . . .” Likewise, the Torah “cautions us to remove cruelty from our hearts, and to instead cultivate the seeds of compassion and kindness” (Shaarei Teshuva 3:35-36).
Note also that the Torah sets a very high bar for the obligation to give tzedakah. One must provide for a poor person “sufficient for his needs that he is lacking.” The value being taught here is obvious: It does not matter how much you have given. If someone doesn’t have all they require, that need should move you to care, empathize, and do whatever you can to help.
There is more to this, however. This pasuk is understood to frame the mitzvah of tzedakah as an obligation to truly provide everything that someone in need lacks. Sometimes a person’s needs are obvious; they may be homeless, ill, malnourished, or unemployed. Other times a person may have less obvious needs. If a person is lacking household utensils—something that others may not realize, since the needy person has a home and others may not be privy to what goes on behind closed doors—others must step up to provide them for him (Mishnah Torah, Hilkhos Matnas Aniyim 7:3). This take a special attention to others, an acute mindfulness and sensitivity.
One of the more starting consequences of this pasuk is the rule that tzedakah even entails providing formerly wealthy people with the high standard of comfort and stature to which they are accustomed. “Even if it was the custom of [a formerly wealthy but presently] a poor person to ride on a horse with a servant running in front of him, and this person who fell from his station, they buy him a horse to ride upon and a servant to run in front of him, as it is said, (Devarim 15:8) Sufficient for whatever he needs’” (Mishnah Torah, Hilkhos Matnas Aniyim 7:3). It is hard to justify such an apparent waste of limited charity resources, and yet this is the rule.
But consider the values and principles that such a rule communicates and tries to inculcate. Rabbi Wolbe himself explains:
“When it comes to “whatever he is lacking,” there is no “normal.” Just has peoples’ minds and personalities differ, so too do their needs differ. If someone wants to be a kind person, he must learn to see and hear what it is that each person is lacking” (Alei Shur, Vol. 2, p. 198).
What a remarkable idea. The Torah doesn’t require those giving charity to provide for the expensive “needs” of the formerly rich person because that person’s needs are inherently legitimate. Instead, the obligation to provide each and every individual with what that person is lacking is another way of reinforcing the idea that tzedakah is much less about giving to the poor (after all, God could provide for those needs far more effectively than we can), and much more about training ourselves to be sensitive, attentive, and compassionate givers.
Sensitive, attentive, compassionate people take others as they come. They do not judge the legitimacy of others’ decisions; they do not think about whether the poor person standing in front of me deserves their poverty, whether they made bad decisions that justify their current needy state. They look at the person in front of them and see only achichah ha-evyon, a needy brother.
This is what kavanah b’mitzvos looks like. One who merely performs mitzvas anashim melumadah gives; he may give a lot, careful to always give a tenth or even a fifth of his income to charity. But someone who does the mitzvah of tzedakah is not the same as a giver.
Conscious, mindful appreciation of the mitzvah is about more than checking of a box on one’s religious scorecard. It is about doing the hard mental, emotional, and physical work to cultivate compassion and generosity towards others as part of one’s character so that it becomes second nature.