During my early days in Israel, a roommate and I were approached by a poor man as we were strolling down Meah Shearim Street in Jerusalem. The man stuck out a cup, which contained a few coins, and said, “Shabbos Koidesh.” He meant that he was collecting funds to purchase Shabbat food for himself and his family. I handed the fellow a shekel as my friend searched his pockets. All he could come up with, though, was a ten-ag0rot coin which he promptly dropped into the cup. But before we could move on, the man said, “Wait a minute!” and placed 50 agorot in the hand of my friend. “It looks like you need the money more than me,” he explained. Without further ado, he turned and walked away, leaving us in a mild state of shock.
Before offering a Torah perspective on responding to an outstretched arm and open palm (or cup), permit me to share several additional encounters with poor beggars in Israel. I will never forget a gentleman in his late sixties who would circulate in the study hall of the Mir Yeshiva in a black baseball cap with the word SHVIGGER (mother-in-law) embossed in large gold letters. Then there was the fellow who came around the yeshivah with a sign over his chest proclaiming in English – a language which he apparently did not understand – that he is “deaf, dead, and dumb.” I myself could only testify to his being deaf and dumb. A third fellow tells you jokes, and a fourth first tries to convince you to take a 250-shekel massage (as he shows you his degree), and then asks if you can at least spare a shekel to help him pay his psychologist.
At one point, I started to ignore these people because of the nuisance they frequently caused. Each encounter involved having to stop learning to search for a coin. But I began feeling uneasy about this approach, especially regarding those people who came around every week. After all, they were really only asking for half a shekel. Furthermore, I kept thinking of the classic image of one Jew putting a coin into the pushke at the end of the outstretched arm of a fellow Jew. Even worse, I knew that there is a Torah prohibition concerning not giving anything at all (Devarim 22).
An insight in this week’s parashah helped me rectify my actions and, ultimately, my perspective. The Torah tells us: Give to him, and let not your heart turn evil…– (נתן תתן לו ולא ירע לבבך בתתך לו דברים טו – י) . The Kli Chemdah points to the doubling of the verb Give in the verse (נתן תתן), and explains it to mean that if one has trouble giving, he should give a little to the first one who asks, and another small amount to the next poor person. Eventually, he will be able to change his habit and give more generously. Indeed, this approach can help us become more generous and compassionate in other areas of life as well.
Besides the benefit of “small change” ultimately leading to big change, there are other significant benefits hidden in the mitzvah of tzedakah. For one thing, the poor man gives the giver a change in perspective. The Torah tells us that there will always be poor people in the world. Why? Rabbeinu Bachye answers that a world with only rich people in it would fall apart economically: If an individual needed something from someone else, no-one would ever feel a need to sell, and the result would be that money would lose its value. Therefore, there must always be poor people (Chovot HaLevavot, Shaar HaBechinah, Ch.5).
On the surface, this is a bit perplexing. Rabbeinu Bachye seems to be saying that the poor must suffer their entire life to facilitate a healthy economy for the rich. Indeed, we find a similarly perplexing statement in the Talmud concerning poverty: Rabbi Akiva said that although G-d loves the poor, He allows them to suffer from poverty so that the rich should be saved from Gehinnom when giving charity (Bava Batra 10a). How can G-d allow the poor to live a life of suffering just to save the rich from suffering in the next world? Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler zt”l explains that we do not appreciate just how great the merit of benefiting another human being actually is – and the poor person receives this merit!
It is told that when a poor man would knock on the door of Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer zt’’l, he would jump up and run to get some money so that the poor man would not need to waste an unnecessary second. His students offered to do the mitzvah for the Gadol HaDor, or at least open the door and let the poor person in. Rabbi Isser Zalman declined, however, explaining that he owes a tremendous debt to the poor. In light of the fact that the existence of poor people is a Heavenly decree, he commented: “If not for this person being poor, then I might have to take his place. He is doing me a favor by filling that position in my stead.” (See Devarim 15:11.)
When we meet a poor person, we sometimes hear a voice inside us saying: “Why doesn’t he go to work and make money?!” or, “Surely, there are better causes than this.” Before listening to this voice, we would do much better to learn the laws of tzedakah in detail and learn (or re-learn) all that Chazal have written about this mitzvah. It saves us from death, evil decrees, poverty, and Gehinnom; and it brings us salvation, makes us better people, and unites us. And, as the prophet Yeshaya declared, Jerusalem will be rebuilt through charity (Yeshaya 1:27).
Besides, it often only costs a shekel!