Friday, October 18, 2013

Tzedakah on the Street

A couple of months ago, one of our members subbed for me at Friday night services, including giving the D'var Torah. In it, he use one of my favorite quotes, and that reminded me that I had been meaning to blog about the quote, and the idea, for a while. Well, it took another while to get to, but…

First, the quote:
Rabbi Chaim of Sanz (d. 1786) said: "The merit of charity is so great that I am happy to give to 100 beggars even if only one might actually be needy. Some people, however, act as if they are exempt from giving charity to 100 beggars in the event that one might be a fraud."
I've heard that argument from countless people, as have we all, I suspect. "I won't give to anyone on the street — many of them are earning $60,000 a year." Or, "They're just going to go and use that money for booze. Why should I give it to them?" There are plenty of variations, but they all amount to the same thing: my charity might be wasted, and therefore I won't give it.

There's plenty about that attitude which I don't like.

First of all, whether or not it's intended as such, it feels cruel to me. To look at someone who is begging on the street and to assume that they are faking poverty, or just looking to satisfy some unwholesome craving feels like a way of looking away. Of pretending that the poverty that we see isn't really there. When I see someone on the street begging for money, I try (and, I don't always succeed) to think about what it must have been like the first time they had to panhandle. How bad do things have to be before any of us would be willing to swallow our pride, make up a cardboard sign and stand holding a cup out? How awful is it to stand there, watching people in nice cars aggressively avoid making eye contact with you? Or, sometimes I'm sure, yelling insults and accusations at you? How much worse is it that, eventually, it must start to all feel normal?

If I take the time to wonder about those things, it gets awfully hard to feel angry and cynical towards them.

I also think it's important to remember that, while it's great to give to organized charities, there's something very important about giving to individuals--the human contact. That contact--looking into the eye of, and speaking to, the recipient, is a powerful moment, for both him or her, and for me. I'll never forget the time that I finally stopped and talked with the young woman who regularly set up camp, leaning up against a metal fence, along my walk from the subway to Rabbinical School. I had given to her plenty of times, but once I sat with her and asked her how she got here. I asked her if I could get her anything, and her answer was that she was dying to have a bacon double cheeseburger, fries and Sprite from the Wendy's across the street (I don't think I had ever wondered how brutal it must be to sit there, cold and hungry, watching people gorge themselves on fat and caffeine). I remember how slowly she ate when I brought her the food, and how she set aside half for her boyfriend who was off looking for work, or maybe just better begging.

And I remember how, when I finally got up to go, she thanked me for the food, but more than that she said, for treating her like a human being. No one had done that in a long time, she told me.

Are there people who are feigning poverty, just to make an easy dollar? Sure. I'll bet there are. Are there people who will take my money and head the the liquor store, or their dealer? Most probably. But, are there people who are starving, scared, desperate, alone, hot, cold, sick dirty, and tired of being ignored or disdained by people who are oblivious to how lucky they are? Yeah. There are a lot of them.

I really hope I can help one. I'm more than willing to risk wasting a few bucks to do so.

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