This is a story about three do-gooders, each of whom attempted to fully actualize the mitzvah of giving tzedakah. Keep in mind that appearances are not always realities.
The first scout wanted to embrace the mitzvah fully, so when she gave, she gave literal handfuls of coins. Beggars had to put out two palms, simultaneously, to catch the glut of bigheartedness that poured from that lady.
The second donor, too, wanted to fully embrace that mitzvah so much so that when she gave her bounty to the indigent, she not only gave in abundance, but she also gave with a physical munificence; with a smile, with hugs, and with kisses. She meant to elevate her recipients from the status of “objects” to “persons.”
The third lady, likewise, wanted to engage in that mitzvah with all of her heart, with all of her might, and with all of her soul. Not only did she give openhandedly and not only did she part with her money with exceptional warmth, but she also ran to buy food or cold drinks for the people for whom she was a benefactor.
Unfortunately, none of those individuals succeeded in achieving the highest level of that mitzvah. Their common problem was that upon walking away from the people that they had helped, those would-be altruists allowed themselves to feel smug.
More specifically, the first lady ratcheted up the heavenly points she imagined she would be receiving for sharing generously. When she made her rounds of the poor, it was nearly Elul, the time when the Aibishter moves among us. Aware of the auspicious season, she gave, partially, to prove to our Creator that she was a “good girl.”
As per the second humanitarian, her deed, too, was ethically compromised. Like the first gal, she was aware of the calendar and sighed, repeatedly, in relief, after she parted from the poverty-stricken individuals she had touched. She was so focused on her worries about cosmic penalties for her year’s worth of bad choices that her very sentiments about how she could or could not tip the scales in her favor weighed against her and her act of charity. So engrossed was she with whether or not, come Rosh Hashanah, she would be judged harshly, that she failed to fulfill that mitzvah completely. When closely examined, her hugging and kissing “smelly beggars” was more theatre than veracity.
The third benefactor nearly collapsed on the sidewalk just minutes after she left the last of the poor people with whom she had shared her money, her heart, and her time. She had pain in her marriage, she had wayward children, she had health problems, and she had recently lost a sibling. Although her effort was peerless, her undergirding reason for pushing herself to do kindness, too, was tainted. In the back of her mind, a voice unrelentingly admonished that “if only” she became a better person, her life would be less difficult. She had chosen to believe that since “charity saves,” such a behavior, especially if greatly embellished, would lift her from her preordained experiences. Such was her rationale for not writing checks to institutions from the comfort of her home and for mingling with the people of the street.
Whereas all three of those patrons of the needy performed chesed, all three failed to act for the highest of reasons, for love. They were not striving for a mitzvah adam l’chaverio or a mitzvah adom l’Makim (Hashem loves us when we love each other, his creations), but were attempting self-abulation. Their bounteousness would only have been full had they engaged in good for the sake of goodness, i.e. had they acted out of love of Hashem, not out of fear of His retribution.
Sure, the recipients of those women’s largess were advantaged by the received subsidies, by the received physical warmth, and by the received cold drinks. By all means, the women, themselves were improved by using their time and money to reach toward others. Nonetheless, as helping hands, those protectors failed to raise themselves to the highest reachable echelon.