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Obligation or From the Heart?

A rabbi once asked a group of students, “Which act of charity is higher: giving out of obligation or giving from the heart?”

“Giving from the heart,” responded the students.

“Are you sure?” asked the rabbi, with a twinkle in his eye.  “Giving from the heart is a wonderful thing.  It is a very high act and should never be demeaned. But there is something far more noble about giving charity out of obligation.”

“How is that possible?” asked the students.

“Consider who is doing the giving. When someone gives from the heart, there is a clear sense of the self doing something: in other words, heartfelt charity involves ego gratification.  Yet when we give out of obligation, when we give at the very moment every part of us is yelling ‘No!’ for one reason or another – perhaps the beneficiary is disgusting, or it is too much money, or any of the thousands of reasons we use to avoid giving charity – then we are not listening to our own egos, and giving all the same. Why? Because we are supposed to.  What this means is that it is not us doing the giving, but rather that we are vehicles through which God gives.”

– Adapted from a story told by David A. Cooper, Entering the Sacred Mountain: A Mystical Odyssey (Bell Tower, 1994).