“Who sees but is not seen, should render kindness to you.”
Today’s Daf Yomi considers the poor, and how to provide for their needs without embarrassing them. We are told that back when the second Temple stood there were “special” chambers. People who had sins to atone for would contribute money to “the chamber of secret gifts.” Those who had come down in the world from noble ancestry would support themselves from the gifts in this secret chamber without risking the embarrassment of openly disclosing their lessened circumstances.
The other secret place was the chamber of vessels, which served as a resource for Temple maintenance. Donors would contribute vessels to the chamber — perhaps the equivalent of gadgets that we buy today and rarely use. The chamber doors would be opened every thirty days. If a vessel was useful for Temple upkeep, it would be kept. Alternatively, it would be sold, and the resulting cash would be used for Temple maintenance.
We are provided with several scenarios for giving to the poor while preserving their dignity. Rabbi Ya’akov bar Idi and Rabbi Yitzḥak bar Naḥman were responsible for a charitable fund. They would provide Rabbi Hama with funds for the needy, who in turn would give it to “impoverished others surreptitiously, so that neither the givers nor the receivers were aware of one another’s identity.” Rabbi Zekharya, who was maligned during his lifetime for allegedly receiving charitable funds, was found after his death to have been providing support to the needy surreptitiously.
Rabbi Ḥinnana bar Pappa would distribute funds in the evening, and he was said to be safe from evil spirits that roam the night, due to his charitable acts. We are told that “the evil spirit grew afraid of him and fled from his presence.” Rabbi Yona reminds us of the importance of helping the less fortunate and performing acts of charity “in the most appropriate manner to avoid embarrassing the poor.”
Rabbi Yona had a unique strategy for helping someone who was once wealthy but had lost his assets. He would offer money to this person who had seen his economic circumstances degrade, by saying that he had heard he was about to come into an inheritance and could pay back the money when it came through. Once the person accepted the money, Rabbi Yona would say that it no longer had to be paid back. The notes in the Koren Talmud suggest that this person in diminished circumstances was expected to pay the money forward and help someone else when his fortune improved.
The sensitivity to appearances is turned around a bit in the story about the two elderly people who relied on charitable funds. They only accepted assistance during the period between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. They did not accept funds any other time of the year. This allowed those who donated during the days of judgment to increase the mitzvah associated with their gifts and lessen the impact of any harsh conclusion on their transgressions.
In another story told in today’s Daf Yomi, Nahum of Gam Zo was in a hurry on his way to his father-in-law’s home. He was carrying a special gift. He passed a man on the way with boils who needed assistance and said: “Give me charity from that which you have brought with you.” Nahum said that he would provide this poor man with help on his way home. He probably did not think too much about it because he appeared to be in such a hurry. But on his way home, he came upon the boil-afflicted man who had died on the road.
Nahum was stricken with great guilt for not having acted sooner to help the poor man. He proclaimed that he should lose his sight for ignoring the hunger that he saw with his own eyes and lose the hands that he did not use to reach out to help and the feet that failed to carry him to the needy man. We are told that “later all of these calamities actually befell him.”When his disciple Rabbi Akiva attempted to console him, he answered that he had to feel his suffering deeply and completely, in order to atone for his transgression.
We are told another story of the great Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov who once sat below a blind man, in a way that everyone could observe. As a result, the blind man was treated with great respect in the community. The blind man recited the following prayer: “You rendered kindness to one who is seen but does not see. Therefore, that Holy One, Who sees but is not seen, should render kindness to you.”
There are many ways to help the need today. There are anonymous ways to give through formal charities that involve the writing of a check or transfer of funds. And then there are those people who sit on the street and openly request for help. It is a very direct and personal appeal that requires the type of immediate interaction that Nahum of Gam Zo was too rushed to engage in as he passed the boil-stricken man. It also requires ongoing interaction with this needy person, because once you engage, it is difficult to pass them by the next time they ask for help. You see them and they see and acknowledge you.
The refrains of the needy forever linger in the air: “any spare change. please help. please help.” It is painful to hear the pleas for help, and even more painful to pass them quickly on your way somewhere while their words ring in your head. So, you give them a dollar or perhaps five, but you know it’s not going to really help them in any way that will make a difference. But for a brief moment, before you hurry on with your life, you see and have been seen.