The Obligation and Joy of Giving

Once, while teaching an adult class regarding our obligation to preserve the kavod/dignity of panhandlers, a predictable question arose. When I give money to someone on the street, how do I know they won’t use it for drugs or alcohol?

Other questions followed. How many people do I need to give to? How do I know if the person is really in need? Does giving to them really help solve the bigger problem of homelessness? The frustration people feel around these questions is deep. We want to help, but is giving directly to people on the streets really protecting their kavod/dignity?

As the questions continued, one student spoke up quietly, but forcefully, and obviously from a place of personal experience, “Each time you give a dollar to someone on the street, you are giving that person a chance to make a choice to use it for something positive. Each time you give, you provide that opportunity for the dignity of choice.”

The room was silent. The freedom to make a choice is at the root of a person’s sense of dignity. Sometimes, it’s that simple.

On Purim one of the religious requirements is to give tzedakah directly to at least two poor people. In the Mishnah Torah, Rambam instructs us, “not to be too meticulous concerning Purim tzedakah money. Anyone who puts out his hand to take should be given money.” (Laws of Megillah 2:16)

And then Rambam dramatically declares, “One who brings joy to the hearts of these disadvantaged individuals resembles God. As the verse states: I live on high, in holiness; Yet I am with the contrite and downtrodden, reviving the spirits of the lowly, reviving the hearts of the disadvantaged.” (Isaiah 57:15)

It is legitimate to ask the questions my students were asking. After all, our resources are limited. And, it is true that giving directly to people on the streets is not an effective long-term solution to a problem that must be addressed at its root. And yet….

Sometimes these questions are an escape from seeing the kavod of those in need. Sometimes we need to look directly into the eyes of someone whose hand is held out and, as the rules of Purim state, “not be too meticulous.” Just give.

Rambam has more advice on this topic: “It is better for people to spend more on gifts to the poor for Purim than to spend more for their own Purim meal or for sending packets of goodies to their friends [Mishloach Manot] for there is no greater or more glorious joy than to bring happiness to the hearts of the poor, orphans, widows and strangers.”

No greater or more glorious joy. Perhaps this joy comes from spending at least one day every year not getting weighed down by legitimate, yet potentially paralyzing questions of judging others. Maybe Purim allows that for one day we can find a person who is asking for help and simply hand that person some money. No questions asked, even in the deepest recesses of our minds. For one day we can trust that we are giving another person an opportunity to make a positive choice with our gift.

We are taught elsewhere that only God can truly judge what is in another person’s heart. And yet the text tells us that in giving in this non-judgmental way we are acting like God. Perhaps this teaches us that a person who is in the humiliating position of putting out a hand and asking for help isn’t judged, even by God. Purim reminds us of this possibility. What a joy!


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.

Feature image by Marc Brüneke

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