Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Beggars

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.

One 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.

When 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 more money.

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.

I've 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.

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