As I read more of Joseph Telushkin's A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 2: Love Your Neighbor As Yourself, I thought about charitable giving to beggars and how I have handled it in the past. Telushkin told two stories that caught my eye.
story was about how Rabbi Shmuley Boteach gave a dollar to a beggar,
even though Rabbi Boteach suspected that the beggar might use that money
for alcohol. Rabbi Boteach told the beggar to use the money for
something good, and Rabbi Boteach said that the beggar was too smart to
spend the money on alcohol. When the beggar left and Rabbi Boteach's
family asked why Rabbi Boteach gave money to the beggar, when the beggar
was obviously going to spend it on booze, Rabbi Boteach responded that
he had compassion on the man because the man had been reduced to
begging, and that he was attempting to respect the beggar's dignity by
talking to him as a person.
Another story was about a rabbi who
was collecting money to buy wood for the poor so that they could be warm
during the winter. When the rabbi came to a rich guy's house, he made
his request to the rich guy----and he made the request quite
lengthy----while they were both standing in the cold right outside of
the rich guy's door. The rabbi's purpose in doing this was so that the
rich guy could see what it is like to be cold, and thus the rich guy
would give more so that the poor could keep warm during the winter.
I lived in Boston, New York, and Cincinnati, I came across beggars.
Many times, I've ignored them. Many times, I've given them a little
money so that they'd get off my case. Sometimes, I would add to my
giving a little sermon to the beggar about how he should be looking for
work and not spending money on alcohol. Many times, I've bought beggars
a meal. In doing so, either I order it myself, or I watch the beggar
order it, making sure that my money is being used for food rather than
booze. And then there have been times when I have bought the beggar
lunch and sat down to eat with him.
I probably sound
insufferable. I mean, if I were reduced to begging, I wouldn't want
someone giving me a little sermon about how I should work and not drink
alcohol. I wouldn't want someone monitoring me to see that I bought
food rather than booze, as if I were some kind of criminal. Probably
the best thing that I did was eat with the beggars and talk with them
like people rather than as objects of my magnanimity. My problem with
that, however, was that then some of them would try to hustle me for
I remember when I was walking with a friend one snowy
Thanksgiving, and my friend bought a newspaper from a homeless person. I
scoffed at what my friend was doing, but my friend replied, "Look, that
guy was standing in that blizzard!" The lesson that I learned from
that is that, whether a beggar is from the "worthy" poor or the
"unworthy" poor, he still does not deserve to be standing in the cold.
appreciated some of the lessons that I've learned from beggars: about
trusting in God to meet one's daily needs (as beggars, of course, wonder
where their next meal will come from, and one of them told me that God
provided), and about what it's like to be homeless and to try to find
work. One time, I gave a beggar money to buy a sandwich. I asked him
what kind he wanted, and he replied that he desired a large sandwich.
So I have him money for a large sandwich, and he requested a small
sandwich while pocketing the rest of the money, right in front of me!
At the time, I was upset that he saw me as a chump, even though I didn't
say anything at the time. Nowadays, I don't blame him for trying to
save money and to make it go further. I try to do that myself.