Exiting our upscale neighborhood grocery store, I notice a spirited group of young women selling Girl Scout cookies by the front door. They are surrounded by people and engaging in conversation. Directly across the street, a homeless man stands alone, his head down, holding a sign: “Please help. My wife and I are VERY hungry.”
It is a brisk, sunny, early-spring day. The shoppers wear light jackets. The man wears a heavy, tattered coat. As I approach, I see in his eyes that he is younger than I had thought from a distance, though age is always hard to tell with skin weathered from the elements. He seems ashamed and distraught. I come close to him and ask quietly, “How is it going today?”
Eyes downcast, he replies, “It has been a hard day.”
Sensing there is more he wants to say, I continue. “Is there something especially difficult about today?”
“Everyone is ignoring me,” he says, tears welling in his eyes. He continues with a whisper, his voice trembling. “It’s just that it has been a really hard time. A few things happened, and we’ve really been struggling.”
We speak for a few minutes. I hand him some money, touch him, wish him luck.
Driving home, I reflect on his words to me. “Everyone is ignoring me.”
According to Maimonides, if you see a poor person asking, you may not ignore him. You must give him tzedakah. Different commentators disagree on exactly what you must give the person, but all agree: You may not ignore the person.
Maimonides wrote, “You are forbidden to turn away empty-handed the poor who ask, even if all you give is one string of figs.” This teaching says to “not return the face of the downtrodden in shame.”
Maimonides acknowledges that the small gift is not about fully satisfying the physical needs of the person asking. He is concerned about the assault on human dignity when a person in need is ignored. He is aware of the shame and vulnerability involved in requesting help.
According to an article by Rabbi Noam Zion, Maimonides “responding positively [to a person in need] is an expression of compassion, not a provision of material needs. It is loving kindness more than tzedakah that is commanded here.” And then, Rabbi Zion reminds us of the power of our interconnection; not only does the person asking require our attention, but Zion says ignoring someone in need places people in danger of hardening their own hearts by turning a blind eye to the request.
Responding to people in need is not only about acknowledging the humanity of the person who is asking. It is a clear lesson that no matter what our social or economic status may be, our own humanity is defined by seeing and responding to the humanity in others, especially those so often ignored.
Photo by Derek Mindler
By Beth Huppin
Beth is the Director of JFS Project Kavod/Dignity. She has enjoyed teaching Judaics to children and adults of all ages in both formal and informal settings for over 30 years. She is the recipient of a 2010 National Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.