The Zohar is regarded by many as the source text of Jewish mysticism. As such, on one hand people treat it with reverence and wonder, but on the other hand it is rarely looked to for practical and ethical guidance on a daily level. However the last Rebbe of Lubavitch is known to find a useful application for almost anything in existence from science and natural phenomena to specific historical events. Therefore certainly we would expect nothing less from his teachings on the Zohar.

The following is a global and potentially earth changing principle that he derives from just a few lines of a passage in the Zohar. Allow me to preface:

In a free-market society where emphasis is placed on voluntary generosity, people who help others with goods and services of all kinds when they have the willingness and ability to help are highly regarded. Torah values, however, mandate of one who has more of something, whether material, intellectual, or spiritual, to share or benefit those in need with his or her gifts. This seems to be the ideal resolution between, for example, a socialist system which forces others to part with their earnings, or a capitalist system which allows people to make as much money as they can, and aside from taxes, to keep all of it.

...the gap between the haves and the have-nots can be evidently overcome.

On the surface, this approach does seem to level the playing field quite a bit. In fact, on a national level, in the land of Israel, there are laws such as shemita - cessation of working the land in the seventh year, where the general rule is that not only other people, but even animals, may partake of a private owner’s seventh-year produce. Furthermore, the rabbinic extension of the law of tithing crops to tithing one’s earnings is a concrete expression of the mitzvah to share. Through these and other charitable practices that Judaism both obligates and encourages, the gap between the haves and the have-nots can be evidently overcome. However, there is a subtle sense in which these endeavors can — at least internally, where Chassidic thought places great emphasis — actually widen the gap! It is to this possibility where we turn to the Rebbe’s ingenious understanding of a piece from the Zohar.

The Zohar (Miketz 199) speaks of the verse from Proverbs, ‘Tzedaka saves from death.’ Rabbis whom the Zohar recounts their travels say that Tzedaka, as a general term for righteousness can refer to either Torah or charity specifically and ‘they are both one aspect.’ The rabbis then encounter a ‘Jew’ (lit. Yuda’i) on their way who adds to this teaching, that the term Tzedaka can also refer to Shalom/peace.

Reb Levi Yitzchak, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe’s father and a renowned Kabbalist, writes in his comments to the Zohar: ‘How could it be that the first two references of Torah and Tzedaka are related to each other? (He then brings in some Kabbalistic terminology.) Torah is based in the sefira of Tiferet of Ze’ir Anpin, whereas Tzedaka is connected to Malchut. (Then he explains the difference in terms more comprehensible to a layperson.) Torah is a spiritual matter while Tzedaka deals specifically with the material. So how could the same term refer to both? Reb Levi Yitzchak answers that this is what the Jew was responding to when he brings in the concept of peace, for peace alone can unite these two opposites.

His son, the Rebbe, then proceeds to unpack and make relevant his father’s teaching. He begins by adding another contrast: Torah relates primarily to work with oneself, whereas Tzedaka refers mainly to assisting another person. So along comes the Zohar’s teaching that Torah and Tzedaka are united by means of Shalom which connects the two extremes. In other words, helping another person is not a separate matter, but rather an intrinsic part of one’s own service, since one person and the other are both part of the essence of K'lal Yisrael, the collective body of Israel.

This is also related to Shabbat Chanukah, which always falls on Parashat Miketz. Shabbat emphasizes work with oneself, as the Shabbat candle is referred to as ‘Neir Beito/the candle of one’s home.’ (Shabbat 23) In contrast, Chanukah relates to one’s service of another, as the Talmud states, ‘It is a mitzvah to place it (the Chanukah light) at the entrance of one’s home toward the outside.’ So when Shabbat and Chanukah come together, there is unification between one’s own work and serving another.

...when one does a favor for another with his body, his friend recognizes the love and reciprocates...

The Rebbe pushes the connection even deeper. The relationship between Shalom to Torah and Tzedaka is not just that they are joined together but that each component of Torah and Tzedaka is related to Shalom, as the Talmud (Berachot 8) states on the verse: ‘My soul He redeemed in peace because of the many who were with me.(Psalm 55:19) According to the Talmud, G‑d is saying that whoever is engaged in Torah and acts of kindness, and prays with the congregation is considered as if he has redeemed ME, as Rashi elaborates on the continuation of the verse: ‘Because of the many who were with me’- that they prayed with me. Also ‘redeemed in peace' refers to one who is involved in words of Shalom, meaning Torah, as it is written, ‘And all her paths are Shalom.’ So too acts of kindness are also Shalom, because when one does a favor for another with his body, his friend recognizes the love and reciprocates with feelings of unity and peace. Thus, Shalom is an intrinsic component of the three pillars upon which the world exists: Torah, prayer, and acts of kindness.

Deeper still is an aspect of Shalom, in which it must be so in a pervasive and revealed manner that the goal of Torah and Tzedaka is necessarily peace.

The Rebbe explains: With reference to the study of Torah, the sages say (Kidushin 30) ‘Even if a father and son and a teacher and student who are studying Torah become enemies in the process of a Torah discussion (because they debate each other and don’t accept each other’s arguments), they don’t move from there until they become friends with one another, as it says ‘the book of the wars of G‑d, and Va’hev at the end,’ (Numbers 21:14) meaning that when Jews battle each other in Torah debates, there is love at the end. Still, even in this scenario, the beginning of the process is the opposite of peace, since they are in conflict with each other. In other words, the study of Torah requires that each one needs to express his opinion at first, but only at the end is the decision according to one of them (or according to a third perspective which resolves both). In fact, ‘Pilpul HaTalmidim,’ the peppering process of students’ debating is one of the traits through which the Torah is acquired.

However — and here is the Rebbe’s radical, and I would say even game-changing challenge — the approach of learning with one’s partner needs to start off with the objective of coming close and being unified. Therefore when one does raise an objection to the words of his sparring study partner, he presents the question to his friend in a manner of wanting to listen again and again if necessary, until he fully understands his friend’s position. Thus these apparent adversaries are exploring, analyzing together and adjusting each one’s words until the teaching comes out clear for the sake of a higher truth. Perhaps in modern parlance this might parallel what the famous negotiator William Ury calls ‘The Third Side.’

So too with the Tzedaka connection to acts of kindness. It may be true that when one benefits another with material goods, the receiver feels the generosity of the giver, which in turn evokes a reciprocal feeling of connection and peace. However, the very fact that there is a contrast between the benefactor and the recipient may induce a feeling of superiority and separation which is actually the opposite of peace. (This may be a reason why Maimonides states that a loan is on a higher level than a gift.) And even though the gift is certainly given with a happy countenance and a feeling of compassion, still as long as the giver feels an advantage over his friend, there cannot be a true sense of peace between them, because true peace means they are both on an equal footing.

...the recipient is really the one who is bestowing the mitzvah of Tzedaka upon the benefactor...

Therefore, returning to the Zohar, the anonymous Jew comes to teach that Tzedaka and acts of kindness should be performed to bring about closeness and unity between them, and not from a feeling of one being the giver and the other the receiver. Rather the dynamic should be from the awareness that, as the Midrash puts it, ‘More than what the householder does for the needy one, the needy one does for the householder.’ This means that the recipient is really the one who is bestowing the mitzvah of Tzedaka upon the benefactor, a mitzvah that the donor would not be able to perform with all the good will in the world, if not for the existence of the needy one. With this attitude, the giver actually becomes grateful to the receiver, who was able to create the merit of the mitzvah of Tzedaka.

So too in spiritual Tzedaka: When one such as a teacher, a scholar, and even a parent, helps another to learn Torah and perform mitzvot, one has to realize that this activity is also for the helper’s benefit. In other words, the teacher is gaining a great deal through this service.

The above state of mind does not come automatically, or even easily. A natural inclination may be for the benefactor to feel good about giving, but unless a person does a lot of inner work beforehand, the good feeling is very likely to be accompanied by a sense of superiority or at least a contrast with the one who is perceived as lesser. As I said, this is a very subtle state of mind, and I think it takes, among other traits, a strong dose of humility to effect — a trait that the sages say one must go to an extreme to cultivate.

However, as the Rebbe seems to be suggesting, positive change on a global and even cosmic level, must begin with an inner remodeling and upgrading of one’s nature- even the nice parts. Not only do thoughts matter, but thoughts can transform energy into matter, and have a revolutionary impact on our lives and society. May we accomplish with joy the directive of this ancient text to achieve a quantum realization and application of the principle that we are indeed all one and that each one of us is a divine cell in the organism of K'lal Yisrael, all humanity, and all of creation.

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