(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...oheiv et hatz'dakot, loving righteous giving...
(Numbers 3:45) Kach et hal'vi'im tachat kol b'khor bivnei yisrael...; Take the Levites in place of every first-born of the Israelites...
We like to make a big deal out of the difference between charity and tzedakah. Charity, we claim, comes from a sense of love and compassion for the recipient. If those emotions have not been cultivated, then the sufferer is out of luck – charity will not be forthcoming. But tzedakah (righteous giving) is an obligation; we are commanded to pursue righteousness and to tend to the needs of the poor. Whether or not we feel good about giving, give we must.
And while God can make us give, God can't make us like it.
Maimonides famously developed a hierarchy of giving that places the one who gives the minimum grudgingly on the bottom rung of the ladder. Does such a person fulfill the mitzvah? Sure. But does such a person acquire Torah in the process? I'm not so sure.
Whether the solicitation comes from a panhandler or a telephone solicitor, how we react is just as important as that we react. Being resentful, judgmental or suspicious as coin or check is used to fulfill an obligation is bound to humiliate the solicitor. In the process, upholding the physical existence of the recipient or the organization is virtually undone by disrespecting the Godliness inherent in the transaction. It is not enough to give from the hand; to acquire the Torah that is integrated in tzedakah, one must also give from the heart.
The obligation to set aside the first fruits, including children, for God was a cultural norm at the time of the Bible. That "gift" is certainly not tzedakah, but no matter what the level of devotion, the sense of impoverishment of families must have been profound. Serving God is a privilege, but that doesn't mean the first-born has to like it – or the parents of the first-born. And so Torah substitutes the entire tribe of Levi for the individual offspring of the other tribes.
It is important to note that the substitution is not insignificant. Certain advantages and privileges accrue to the Levites, but they do not hold property and are dependent on the tithes and contributions of the rest of Israel to survive. The also cannot opt out of the obligation. They become the embodiment of tzedakah – given to restore the impoverishment and suffering of families divided. But do they have to like it?
I have often told the story of my first Emil Verban Memorial Society luncheon. The Society was organized for expatriate Cubs fans, and its biennial gathering would feature famous Cubs of yesteryear. I took a guest that year and asked, as I always do, for a vegetarian meal. I wound up paying $75 for a plate of broccoli, but I had the chance to meet pitcher Ken Holtzman, one of my boyhood heroes, and others.
Standing on the sidewalk outside the luncheon hall was a young man with a sign that said, "Homeless father of two. Please help." I walked right past him without a thought. About half a block later it dawned on me that I had just spent $75 for a plate of broccoli and a childhood memory, but I had ignored a human being in distress. I returned, mumbled something, and gave him some money. He said three words that humiliated me: God bless you.
Since then I make it a practice not only to meet my obligation to people who are in need, but also to speak with them with respect and interest. I am not foolhardy; I know enough to stay safe. But call me a tzedakah-levi – I was reborn to the task and not satisfied with the bottom rung on the ladder. When a mitzvah becomes integrated into your life, the sense of obligation melds with a sense of satisfaction, and you are willing to act out of love (that is, for the benefit of another even against your self-interest). Torah may be observed by the dispassionate act, but it remains "observed," something viewed from the outside. Torah is acquired only by the intentional act of doing more than the minimum. The undeserved blessing I received for doing only the right thing pierced my smug sense of rectitude and now makes me like doing the righteous thing, as I must.
How can you be oheiv et hatz'dakot? Go for a walk each workday for a week or more, and take with you quarters or dollars. (If you can't overcome your reluctance, purchase coupons for fast-food restaurants.) Speak to the beggars you meet and offer them both tzedakah and a blessing. Similarly, answer the phone when it rings during dinner and be patient and appreciative with the person who wants your help. If you can support the cause, give gladly; if not, decline humbly, thanking the solicitor for his or her good work. And, when you encounter a case of need in conversation or when you read the newspaper, seek out the need and respond.