In Devarim 15:7, it begins with "be warm-hearted and openhanded to our brethren." From this, our people have had a longstanding tradition and connection in the giving of tzedakah. The Torah admonishes us to give whatever is lacking to the person in need and give wholeheartedly. We may not harden our hearts toward any in need or close our hand, for it says there are "destitute among you" and that "the destitute will not cease." It is apparent that this commandment to be concerned with your neighbor's needs was to be an institution for all time and a proof of Hashem's manifestation amongst His people and among all peoples.
frugal with yourself, not with others
So how are we supposed to go about our days when there are those around us who are less fortunate? While many people throughout history have sought answers to this, we merely need to return to the mitzvah of tzedakah in the Torah and see its redemptive power. The emotions that someone in desperate need goes through on a daily basis can range from suffering, fear, hopelessness, lack of peace, to a complete lack of faith. When that person in need suddenly becomes a recipient of tzedakah, many of those emotions can dissipate, even if just for a while, and provide a temporary redemption for that individual. The suffering may seem more bearable, faith in humanity and in a loving Creator might return. These natural side-effects are built into the process and can literally change a life. But there is something greater than all of this - we have to ability to evoke this redemption again and again as we are not free to ever cease from performing this mitzvah. This is not only redemptive for the recipient, but also for those who give; it heals a small part of that hurting within ourselves when we see the lack in the lives of others. Does this mean that the way to assuage our sadness in seeing misfortune in the lives of others is write a check and be free? The Torah doesn't let us off that easily. However, it does give us some release of burden by allowing us to feel as if we can be participants in bringing about righteousness on a continual basis. By prescribing for us to give repeatedly, we are freed from being separate from the situation and the guilt of our good fortune is removed from us.
from feeling to action
First, being "warmhearted and openhanded" might seem to be fairly easy obligations to fulfill. We see someone in need, have compassion, open our purse, and then we move on. However, many more times than not, we witness those in need and simply "feel badly" regarding their situation. Opening one's purse to help those is need is not the next obvious course of action for most people. Our first instinct in any "need" situation should be to feel for that person or group of people. For us to be defined as a people of Hashem and a witness of G-d in this world, we need to display compassion and mercy. That requires feeling the very need that is in the person's life before us - whether literally before us, on television, on a slide show, etc. This gives a fuller understanding of what is meant by "warmhearted."
But how many will act and be "openhanded", the second active part of the commandment? How many will be financially inclined to give? How many will sit in a stunned or paralyzed state of feeling sorrow for the victims and yet do nothing constructive with that emotion? It is not enough to know that someone is in need and to feel badly; we are required to act. Through action, we bring the very righteousness of Hashem into the world and allow His creatures to witness us operating according to the very image in which we were made - in the image of G-d Himself. Thus, we are fulfilling the divine intention with respect to this mitzvah in the manner which most truly represents G-d and His compassion for us.
being sure you have something to give
But the greater contingency on being able to give is having something to give. And this is where frugality comes into play. Through disciplined spending, budgeting and accounting of all that we have, we are certain that we are able to give to those in need on a regular basis. When we have the desire to spend money on something for ourselves, it should be tempered with the reality that there must be enough left over for tzedakah. Just as easy as it is to pay four dollars for a latte, it must also be just as easy to give that same amount to a needy soul. Our lives need to be structured around not only providing for ourselves but for others. The mentality of "what I earn is mine" has no place in the economy of Hashem. We have been given charge of every penny, every nickel and every large denomination of bill - and it is no small task. Coming up short in our finances and deciding to nix tzedakah is a very serious offense.
As you count the change in your pockets and contemplate the dollars in your savings accounts, don't forget to ease the burdens of those in need and bring about sparks of justice to a world which is looking for the final redemption. Manage your dollars and your time wisely - lives beyond your own depend on it.