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The Experience of Giving

I was just reading through some old e-mails when I happened upon something I wrote on November 4, 2004. I was about to finish grad school and move back to New York. President George W. Bush had just been re-elected. This e-mail is particularly apropos given my recent trip to Israel, the 2008 Presidential race, and the current situation in the Gulf Coast. I wanted to share it in the hopes that it speaks to you and you find it in your heart to donate your money or time to the charity that moves you the most.

My recent contributions have been to support my friend Michelle DeForest who is running a marathon to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and to the American Red Cross to help those affected by Hurricane Gustav.

Whether you’re Jewish, Christian, Muslim, another religion, non-religious, atheist or some combination thereof, I hope we can connect as human beings and help lift each other up. To me, being able to help someone in the best feeling in the world.

From: Whitney Georgina Hess
Sent: Thursday, November 04, 2004 3:27 PM
Subject: Daily mitzvah

Dear Friends,
There are 613 mitzvot (commandments) in Judaism that we are supposed to obey every day of our lives. As most of you know, I am not a particularly religious person — I don’t go to synagogue, I don’t keep kosher, and I don’t read the torah. But a love and respect for life was ingrained in me at a very early age. At a time like this when I feel a deep sense of loss and disappointment, it’s hard not to lose faith in humanity. But I’m reminded now of the way I am commanded by God to lead my life. Reviewing the mitzvot, I’m coming to realize how many of these deeds I regularly fail to perform.

  • Not to wrong any one in speech
  • Not to bear a grudge
  • Not to cherish hatred in one’s heart
  • Not to curse a father or mother

The mitzvot regarding love & brotherhood and the poor & unfortunate strike me the most. Not to stand by idly when a human life is in danger. To rebuke the sinner. To relieve a neighbor of his burden. To give charity according to one’s means.

Tzedakah is the Hebrew word that refers to acts of charity, but its literal translation is righteousness, justice or fairness. In the Jewish faith there are eight levels of the tzedakah, represented on a ladder according to the merit of each act, the idea being that is it easy to give at the lowest level and increasingly difficult as you climb the ladder. Firstly, I should say that I do not believe that altruism exists. Selfless acts cannot exist because of the spiritual satisfaction that we get by putting another person’s welfare before our own. However, I still strongly believe in tzedakah and consider it one of my chief obligations as a Jew. Traditional Jewish law says that we are supposed to give one-tenth of our income (after taxes) to the poor, but it is commonly believed that there are other, perhaps more meritorious, ways to fulfill tzedakah.

The levels of tzedakah are as follows:

  1. Giving begrudgingly
  2. Giving less than you should, but giving it cheerfully
  3. Giving after being asked
  4. Giving before being asked
  5. Giving when you do not know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient knows your identity
  6. Giving when you know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient does not know your identity
  7. Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity
  8. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant

The injustices in our local communities, in our nation, and worldwide remind me of what it means to be a person of faith. Faith is defined by belief, trust, and confidence in and allegiance to personal truths. In the face of disappointment, it is imperative that we keep faith in ourselves and in one another. It’s easy to feel helpless and defeated, but we must continually give of ourselves, simply out of appreciation for being alive.

Thank you,

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  1. Whitney … word!

    This year I've committed to not just talking the cranky-NYC democrat's talk, but walking the walk. People talk about how good giving feels, and of course it does. But I often wish that we talked more about how 10-15% more of an effort to help a cause that you care about can make a serious difference. I regularly donate to my fav charity now (Project Peanut Butter) and coordinated a bake sale at my office (Comedy Central). We raised a ton of money, (more than I could have hoped for really), and it was pretty much one of the easiest things I've ever done.

    It just needs to be scheduled into your life as an everyday personal chore/responsibility; like paying a bill.


  2. Whitney … word!

    This year I’ve committed to not just talking the cranky-NYC democrat’s talk, but walking the walk. People talk about how good giving feels, and of course it does. But I often wish that we talked more about how 10-15% more of an effort to help a cause that you care about can make a serious difference. I regularly donate to my fav charity now (Project Peanut Butter) and coordinated a bake sale at my office (Comedy Central). We raised a ton of money, (more than I could have hoped for really), and it was pretty much one of the easiest things I’ve ever done.

    It just needs to be scheduled into your life as an everyday personal chore/responsibility; like paying a bill.


  3. great stuff! but you do not have a full or exact translation of maimonides' eight levels of tzedakah. try this:

    There are eight degrees of giving Tzedakah:
    1. The highest degree is to strengthen the hand of a Jew who is poor, giving that person a grant or loan or becoming a partner or finding a job for that person, to strengthen the person’s hand, so that the person will not need to ask for assistance from others…

    2. A lesser degree, is one who gives Tzedakah to a poor poor and is unaware of the recipient, who, in turn, is unaware of the giver. This is indeed a religious act achieved for its own sake.

    Of a similar character is one who contributes to a Tzedakah fund. One should not contribute
    to a Tzedakah fund unless he or she knows that the person in charge of the collections is
    trustworthy and wise and knows how to manage the money properly…

    3. The [third], lesser, degree is when the giver knows the recipient, but the recipient does not know the giver. The great sages used to go secretly and cast the money into the doorway of poor people. Something like this should be done, it being a noble virtue, if the Tzedakah
    administrators are behaving properly.

    4. The [fourth], still lower, degree is when the recipient knows the giver, but the giver does not know the recipient. The great sages used to tie money in sheets which they threw behind their backs, and poor people would come and get it without being embarrassed.

    5. The [fifth], still lower degree is when the giver puts the Tzedakah money into the hands of poor people without being solicited.

    6. The [sixth], still lower degree is when he or she puts the money into the hands of a poor person after being solicited.

    7. The [seventh], still lower degree is when he or she gives the poor person less than he or she should, but does so cheerfully.

    8. The [eighth], still lower degree is when he or she gives the poor person grudgingly/with a feeling of pain/unhappily.

    (Mishna Torah, Laws of Gifts to Poor People, 10:7-14)

    this is danny siegel's translation (http://www.dannysiegel.com). i prefer to translate #8 (as i wrote, not as per your numbering) as 'giving via sadness/pain'.

    we can discuss this more. keep up the great tzedakah thinking!

    arnie draiman

  4. Whitney, as usual your writing got me thinking in a different way about something I already hold high in every day life.

    You got me to go back and learn more about Tzedakah especially and who Maimonides was, how he came up with the Mishna Torah, and all that Jazz — which led to even more insights. And then reading your post again with comments led to more ideas still. So thank you! I think the blog post was pretty high up on the Tzedakah depth chart!

    I do what I do in terms of strategy and user experience, and work in general always attempting to reach the top level of Tzedakah. While I may not get there, I always want to help people learn something new, have something of utility; and at best, provide work for talented, hard-working professionals. That is the ultimate reward.

    If I can spend my time exchanging ideas so that someone can learn a new way to support themselves or their family: that is the most gratifying time spent. Giving to charity is of course great, but to be honest, dropping the coins in the Tzedakah box doesn't even compare to presenting ideas on some aspect of user experience to people and watch their faces light-up with the delight of learning something new, or finding a new approach to something old. To me, a day in the office like that is worth more than a high-holiday pray-a-thon.

    Wait a second. Finding out something new and sharing it with others, who can share that information with others…. sounds like social media. Today, social networking and the ideas of companies being part of the conversation between people is often termed “disruptive.”

    Funny, but this is how Maimonidies was viewed way back (like 800 years ago) when he wrote the notions of Tzedakah. Today, we take these ideas as gospel, as though they so self-evidently represent universal truths. No matter what you're religion, we can all agree that helping someone help themselves is a great idea. But back then, these ideas were tremendously disruptive. His writing was burned by orthodox congregations in the name of G-d (only to be brought back to europe and vaunted to spur the renaissance later). Now they are revered, and we can't help but think about them during this annual time of renewal.

    This brings me to the point of your post and the comment from Arnie correcting you in terms of the “actual” text from the Mishna Torah. As I was looking back on the guidelines of Tzedakah and the study of these works in the context of Maimonides' life as a social-networking node in his job as an Egyptian doctor and local spiritual leader on the weekends — it really shows off how unimportant the texts are, and how incredibly important critical thinking, questioning, and interpretation are.

    Just like Shakespeare a few hundred years later, is any of Maimonides writing really written by him? Who cares about the correct wording? When I came to your post, I had always thought about Tzedakah as justice, plain and simple. I'm making it a mission to learn as much as I can, and share as much as I can back filtered through my experience because it's my job as a person. Justice. Period.

    This viewpoint was mostly informed by an cartoon poster at hebrew school about Tzedakah that followed the popular commercial Schoolhouse Rock series. At the top was a man shaking another man's hand in congratulations for his new job.

    Over the years, I have heard many different interpretations, including ones like the views on this page, that have added depth, interest, and complexity. On one of the sites I saw while clicking for more information on Tzedakah wrote at the bottom, “This page is designed as a guideline and to help formulate more questions.”

    So to end this ramble, I hope the readers of this post, regardless of denomination, will take this as a spark plug to spend the first few weeks of September renewing themselves, asking questions, and finding something new to learn and to share.

    Who knows. Maybe in 800 years, someone will discover one of your ideas, and it will make a big difference in the way they live their life.

    • Thank you so much for this incredibly thoughtful comment. It's funny that
      you mention the Tzedakah pyramid because that is the visualization that
      sticks with me the most. I honestly didn't learn a whole lot in Hebrew
      School — it was far more social than educational — but I have always had
      the pyramid imprinted in my mind.

      You're absolutely right about the larger goal of user experience and how it
      relates to helping people help themselves. As a user experience designer, it
      is our responsibility to discover what people need and give it to them in
      the most intuitive, most pleasurable way possible. We clear the road so that
      they can get it done on their own, no hassle, no hurdle. I'm certain that
      that completely embodies the spirit of the highest level of Tzedakah.

      Thank you again for taking the time to write here. Now you can use the
      “reblog” link to send this to your blog :)

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