The time has come to put the needy in their proper place.
Imagine the following:
On a chilly winter evening there is a knock at your door. You answer and are greeted by Shmuel, a regular visitor, who asks for tzedaka. You reach into your pocket and hand Shmuel a 20 shekel note. He thanks you, blesses you and turns away in his quest for the next open door. As you return inside, warmth in the impression that you have made Shmuel happy gives you a feeling of pride and accomplishment. He will have his next meal or perhaps get closer to paying his rent this month. What a mitzvah!
But…what about Shmuel? How is he really feeling? Is his heart singing as well? Is he “happy?”
The answer is that for most of the “Shmuels” who approach us, the good feeling isn’t mutual. Embarrassment and humiliation in having to ask to cover even the most basic of needs, are not things that cause happiness.
The status of “beggar” casts a pall on them and their families.
If this is how we look at helping others,…. ummmm “Houston, we have a problem.”
Yes, giving tzedaka is a very important mitzvah. As the Ramabam writes (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:1), it is the most important of all of the positive commandments. Are we performing it to the best of our (and perhaps the recipient’s) ability?
The good feelings from tzedaka should be for the recipient. Not a temporary “feel good” but a potential for real change that will eventually lead to not needing further help.
While we want, and even need, to help another for now, why would we be satisfied in perpetuating a situation that is not ideal for the recipient?
What is the ideal way to perform this essential mitzvah?
One of the principle sources of tzedaka comes from this week’s Parsha, Behar (Vayikra 25:35):
וְכִי-יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ, וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ–וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ, גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב וָחַי עִמָּךְ
If your brother becomes destitute and his hand falters beside you, you shall strengthen him …. so that he can live with you.
When giving charity to another, it should be with the goal to strengthen that person in order that he/ she can “live with you”, i.e. be on your “level”. When someone asks from another, no matter where he is physically, by nature he feels as if he is “lower on the totem pole” who needs to receive from another.
Our tzedaka should be a hand up rather than just a “handout”. By helping someone find a job, start a business or improve their finances, we can dramatically change the life of the recipient. The ability to provide for oneself lifts a burden from the community while elevating the recipient to a level of dignity and honor.
This is why the Rambam (Maimonidies) famously says:
שְׁמוֹנֶה מַעֲלוֹת יֵשׁ בַּצְּדָקָה זוֹ לְמַעְלָה מִזּוֹ. מַעֲלָה גְּדוֹלָה שֶׁאֵין לְמַעְלָה מִמֶּנָּה זֶה הַמַּחֲזִיק בְּיַד יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁמָּךְ וְנוֹתֵן לוֹ מַתָּנָה אוֹ הַלְוָאָה אוֹ עוֹשֶׂה עִמּוֹ שֻׁתָּפוּת אוֹ מַמְצִיא לוֹ מְלָאכָה כְּדֵי לְחַזֵּק אֶת יָדוֹ עַד שֶׁלֹּא יִצְטָרֵךְ לַבְּרִיּוֹת לִשְׁאל. וְעַל זֶה נֶאֱמַר (ויקרא כה לה) “וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב וָחַי עִמָּךְ” כְּלוֹמַר הַחֲזֵק בּוֹ עַד שֶׁלֹּא יִפּל וְיִצְטָרֵךְ
There are eight levels of tzedakah, each one greater than the other. The greatest level, higher than all the rest, is to fortify a fellow Jew and give him a gift, a loan, form with him a partnership, or find work for him, until he is strong enough so that he does not need to ask others [for sustenance]. Of this it is said, (Lev. 25:35) “If your brother, becomes destitute…”
This paragon of charity takes time and creativity in addition to money. It is an investment in another person with limitless dividends. We can empower them to change generations. True charity is concern for today and tomorrow.
Yes, we should also give for the here and now. We must recognize it however, as a “band-aid” and not the solution. It is feeding the person as they take the time to learn how to fish.
The purpose in giving to another should be to move them into a better place. A place of honor and pride in which extra assistance is not needed. A place where they can provide for themselves and their families and live with you.