In Johannesburg, we have beggars positioned on most intersections. One eccentric character has hung out in our neighbourhood for as long as we’ve lived here. He loves gaudy clothes and sunglasses, wears earphones that don’t plug into anything, and always carries a quirky cardboard sign. He makes sure to get the kids in the passing cars to smile.
One evening, a friend of mine stopped at a local quick shop to buy a soft drink. As he stepped up to pay, our eccentric beggar-friend approached him for a donation. My friend fumbled and apologised, as he realised he didn’t even have enough cash on hand to pay for his own drink.
“How much do you need?” asked the homeless man.
“Two bucks,” my friend admitted.
Without hesitating, the older man drew out his bag of coins- a day’s worth of panhandling- and happily handed over two Rand!
The acute role reversal left my friend speechless. When he shared the story with me, it got me thinking about what makes someone wealthy.
This Shabbos, we read the Torah portion of Shekalim that details the annual half-Shekel tax every Jew had to contribute to the Temple. When G-d introduced this mitzvah, He told Moses that it would atone for the sin of the Golden Calf. Moses was baffled. How could a token contribution correct such a momentous mistake?
The commentaries offer many explanations for this, but the story of the generous beggar made me think of another possible angle. The people had believed that the Golden Calf was a worthwhile investment. In their minds, Moses was gone, and they needed to finance a project that would offer a solid return- a replacement oracle. People are like that. We happily throw millions at business or philanthropic opportunities that promise a decent payback. Charity for charity’s sake isn’t always a welcome prospect.
When times are tough, we are inclined to become charity-averse. A billionaire who loses a few hundred million might feel vulnerable and tighten the purse strings. Yet, here was a fellow living hand to mouth who was able to part with his money to help someone better off than himself.
As long as we can give, we are wealthy. When we lose our generosity, we become poor, no matter how much we have in the bank.
Perhaps that was G-d’s message with the half-shekel. He wanted to remind us that investing big bucks into a golden project that we believe will benefit us doesn’t indicate wealth. Giving away- even just a little- does.