Participating in acts of generosity has the power to soften and open hearts, turning receiver into giver and giver into receiver. This is how connections to ancestors, neighbors, mentors, friends, and other community members are maintained, and how we can live our lives with deeper meaning.
It is a common thread among religious traditions and spiritualties around the world to “pass it on” however that may look. For some it is tithing, for others it is a smile at the cashier at the grocery store. Other times “passing it on” means doing a favor for someone, gifting a possession or a trait, or offering wisdom. Religions address the concept in subtly different ways, but they all land in the same place – giving is an act of holiness.
In Judaism there are 8 degrees of giving, called tzedakah, each level detailing types of charity based on the disposition of the giver and the receiver, as well their relationship to each other. What we might call generosity of spirit is termed nedivut in Hebrew – which is when one desires to give because of a direct connection to a soul that is in need. It acknowledges that others’ needs are our needs, too – that their suffering is also our suffering. Spontaneous and compassionate, this type of giving comes from a spiritual willingness to move closer to god.
The Hebrew word ונתנו (v’natnu) means “they shall give” and, interestingly, the letters of the word (vav, nun, taf, nun, vav) form a palindrome. Rabbis teach that this is because giving is a cycle, a beneficial transference of energy and material goods that purifies the hearts of both giver and receiver. Giving shows membership to a community that supports you just as you support the community.
There is similar wisdom in Islam. The third pillar of Islam requires Muslims to give zakat, which is a form of alms-giving intended to support the community in prescribed ways. Zakat translates into “that which purifies” so we see again how the act of giving is an act of purification. Zakat is an act of piety that expresses concern for the well-being of others. It is a reminder that everything earned is earned because of God (Allah), and in fact belongs to Allah. Because He wants social harmony and the redistribution of wealth, one is more truthful and thankful to Allah when they purify their hearts by giving away what they are able.
In Earth-centered traditions, it is also emphasized that we are all recipients of gifts freely given. We have all benefited from living on this planet, which also asks something of us. We are active participants in the well-being of the earth, and we feel that sense of belonging when we respond to the call to give back. It is considered an honor to give back to the Earth so that it may stay in balance. In order for the gifts of the Earth (in the form of air, water, soil, trees, etc) to continue to flow, we must give back in equal measure what we take.
It’s just like the teachings of the Potawatomi, who are native people of the Great Plains. They believe that responsibilities and gifts are two sides of the same coin. The possession of a gift is coupled with a duty to use it for the benefit of all. Birds are given the gift of song – and so they have a responsibility to greet the day with music. Salmon have the gift of travel, so they accept the duty of carrying food upriver. If we want to know what our responsibility is to the earth, we must ask ourselves, “What is our gift to give?” “What have I been given that I want to give away?”
The Constitution of the Iroquois Nation suggests that “In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation..." meaning that humans must (and I would argue, we instinctively do) care about what comes after them, all the way through the next 7 generations (and the Iroquois consider one generation to be 100 years – so talk about the long view!). All decisions are weighed in this perspective, acknowledging that positive legacies are vital, and come in the form of traditions, family recipes, personality traits, heirlooms, values, etc.
When Jesus said to his disciples, in John, 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid,” he is saying that peace, a tranquil soul, is all he has left, and so he wishes for that gift to be his dying legacy. For Christians, everlasting peace is an inheritance from Jesus, which ought to provide comfort in times of distress or fear.
In the same manner that Jesus bestowed peace to his disciples, we ought to give to others with the essence of compassion and conviction, joyously and freely. Here we find parallel wisdom in Buddhism and Taoism, both of which teach that the state of mind of the giver is as important as the act of giving. If we feel stingy or that our resources are scarce, it is helpful to think of the Tao, which emphasizes that you already have everything you need, and therefore you already have an unlimited supply of presents to bestow upon others. It is when we live and act with a spirit of abundance that our connections to each other grow.
There is a Hindu proverb that states “they who give have all things, they who withhold have nothing,” and from the highly spiritual program of Alcoholics Anonymous we get the phrase “You have to give it away to keep it.” It is a truth, as Mahatma Ghandi expressed it so eloquently, “The fragrance always remains in the hand that gives the rose.”
Clearly, there is a long, virtuous history of generosity in our roots. When we become aware of this inherent generosity, and are mindful to practice it in our daily lives, we begin to act as our highest spiritual selves, embodying the wisdom of so many ancient faith traditions.
Mother Teresa said “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one.”
And then, pass it on.