Generosity

Letter | Life lesson: Err on the side of compassion

June 29, 2014 

When I was a boy growing up in Brooklyn in New York City, I was a good student and the rabbi of my synagogue took a liking to me. One day in the 1940s, the rabbi invited me to accompany him on a trip to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And on almost every corner of each street, there sat a beggar. The rabbi gave each beggar at least one coin. And the rabbi also gave me a coin to give to each beggar to instill in me the importance of fulfilling the commandment to help the less fortunate.

I’ve thought of my visit to the Lower East Side of Manhattan with my boyhood rabbi the many times I’ve been approached by beggars and panhandlers. Of course, we can all think of many reasons not to give money to beggars and panhandlers:

1) I can’t give to everyone, can I? There are just too many of them.

2) How do I know they won’t blow the money on alcohol and drugs?

3) I don’t believe in tossing someone a fish; they need to learn to fish.

4) We pay taxes to maintain government services like shelters and soup kitchens and there also many private charities. Why don’t these people use them?

5) That young panhandler looks fit and strong. I’m sure he could get work if he tried; maybe he’s just too picky.

6) It’s obvious that guy with the crutches is just faking his injuries to get sympathy.

7) I hear stories from beggars that break my heart: He lost his veteran’s benefits; someone set fire to her apartment; his kids are sick. I never know what to believe, so I only donate to reputable charitable organizations.

Up until a number of years ago, these reasons for not giving to beggars and panhandlers carried a lot of weight with me. Then I remembered the Bible tells us that when God called to Abraham, Abraham answered “Hineini” — “Here I am.” And when God called to Moses, Moses also answered “Hineini” — “Here I am.” And I decided that perhaps the presence of beggars or panhandlers on the streets is God’s way of calling out to me, so that I, too, could answer “Hineini” — “Here I am.”

So I try never to pass a beggar or panhandler without providing him with some financial assistance. I don’t try to distinguish the authentic needy person from the phony. I don’t worry about enabling alcoholics and drug addicts or about being scammed or hoodwinked. Of everyone with a hard luck story or an outstretched arm, I assume the best, not the worst.

Are there times when the people I give money to are phonies? I’m sure there are. But who am I to second-guess the truth of another human being’s circumstances? What if I’m wrong in my assessment and the person really is hungry or really has no place to live or really can’t find a job and is unable to pay the rent or doesn’t have the money to pay the fare to visit a sick parent?

I consider myself very fortunate. I live quite well. I’ve been blessed. I’ve really never known what it is to not have enough food to eat or not to have a roof over my head or not to enjoy many physical comforts of life. God has been good to me. But I also recognize that there but for the grace of God go I. And I don’t know how I would manage if I went to bed hungry every night or had no place to live.

And so, I really do feel better when I don’t look the other way when I pass a beggar or don’t say “No” when approached by a panhandler or by someone who gives me a hard-luck story. They may be playing me or they may be telling me the truth. And I’m grateful to God that I’m not in their shoes. So I don’t turn them away even though I know some of them aren’t telling the truth because I know that some of them are telling the truth. And for the benefit of those who are, my answer is “Hineini”   “Here I am.” And when I give, I almost always get three words back. Not “Here I am,” but “Thanks so much” or “God bless you.”

A few months ago, in the evening, I drove to a local supermarket to pick up a prescription. As I got out of my car and walked toward the supermarket in the parking lot, a woman came up to me and told me that she had no place to sleep and needed $22 for a motel room for the night. It was a cold evening. Was the woman telling the truth? Did she really need the money? How should I know? But I decided it is better to err on the side of excessive generosity than on the side of excessive stinginess.

I decided to help her. But I felt that if I gave her the entire $22 that would make it too easy for her to panhandle. So I gave her a $10 bill, which was almost half the amount she said she needed. And she looked me in the eyes and said, “Thanks so much.” And that $10 bill didn’t reduce my living standard by one iota. But, hopefully, it made life a little bit easier for her.

The writer is Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Conway.

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