“The Conundrum of Charity–Who Benefits More?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Mishpatim, contains an abundance of interesting mitzvot. Among the 53 mitzvot found in this week’s parasha is the mitzvah of caring for the poor and those in need by providing interest-free loans and performing acts of gemilut chasadim (kindness).

The Torah, in Exodus 22:24, states: “Im keh’sef tal’veh et ah’mee, et heh’ah’nee eeh’mach, lo teeh’yeh lo k’no’sheh.” When you lend money to My people, to the poor person who is with you, do not act toward him as a creditor. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) cites Rabbi Yishmael who says that every time the word “im” appears in the Torah its meaning is “if” (implying optional), but the word “im” found in this verse is one of three instances where the meaning is “when” (implying obligatory), indicating that we have no choice when it comes to caring for the poor.

Many years ago, I had occasion to attend the wedding of a young man who had previously studied with me, who had grown up in the Mir community of Brooklyn. The Yeshiva of Mir, named after a city in Belorussia, was one of the premiere European Torah centers. What was unusual about the Mirer Yeshiva was that many of its students survived the Holocaust because they received visas to relocate to Shanghai, in Japanese occupied China, where they stayed during the war years. Today, there are two major yeshivot of Mir, one in Brooklyn, the other in Jerusalem.

As is customary in the Yeshivish and Chassidic world, the wedding took place on a Tuesday night, the day that is doubly blessed in the Torah (Genesis 1:9-12). Since I had to teach my “Introduction to Bible” class that night, I arrived in Boro Park just as the chuppah was letting out.

Although the father of the groom was a successful caterer, he chose to have a rather modest wedding that was held at the Gruss Educational Center in Boro Park. At that time, it was a relatively new building with a spacious dining room.

It was the middle of winter, and upon ariving I looked for a place to hang my coat. Scores of people were passing through the lobby, moving out from the gymnasium where the chuppah had been held. Seconds after I finally found a hanger, a man came up to me and thrust his hand in my face, shaking it vigorously. I understood that he was seeking a donation. I took out some change and put it in his hand. Before he had a chance to pull away his hand, a second collector thrust his hand in my face. I looked around and saw that the lobby was teeming with collectors. I then noticed something unusual–I was the only one who was giving coins, all others were giving bills.

That behavior duly noted, I went downstairs to the ballroom. As I entered the ballroom I noticed two beautifully appointed tables–one on the men’s side, the other on the women’s side, that had been designated for the poor people. They were not a handsome group. Many wore ragged clothes and came with their shopping bags and unique odors. Some had even “parked” their shopping carts nearby. Apparently, the hosts felt that they could not celebrate fully without including the poor people in their joy.

I tried to make myself feel comfortable in this unusual environment. Not knowing even one of the men who were seated at my table did not help. After the first course, one young man at my table stood up and announced that he had taken upon himself to support a poor family in Jerusalem and that he “expected” (he did not say “hoped”) that everyone would give. Realizing that I was in very “unusual” company, I reached into my wallet, pulled out a $5 bill, waved it in front of everyone so they could see how generous I was, and gave the young man the $5 bill. No one at the table gave less than $20, except for me!

After the next course, a group of young students entered the room, dressed in pink rabbit uniforms and proceeded to dance a rikud to the music. Circling the room and stopping at each table, they gave out little cards stating that they were students of the Mir Yeshiva, and that in the month of Adar, which proceeds Nissan, they go from simcha to simcha to collect for the poor who have no wine or matzah for Passover. Again, there was an outpouring of charity–the likes of which I had never seen.

There’s one thing worse than being on a Mafia hit-list. Their contract killers shoot their victims or throw them into the river, and death is usually rapid or instantaneous. Being on the charity “hit-list” however, is slow torture. Once the collectors get your name, they are relentless!

I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in a doorman apartment building. The collectors drive up in groups. They invariably arrive at the most inopportune time and, in some instances, arrogantly demand help and support. Some of them are dishonest (although now there are organizations that provide certificates presumably certifying the truthfulness of their requests). On one occasion, I gave a poor person an $18 check that he altered and cashed for $78. Sometimes, a poor person will pull out a photocopy of my last check and demand that I give him at least as much as last year, if not more! The entire process can be very unpleasant.

But after my experience with the Mir community, my attitude changed dramatically. From that time, I would try to welcome the poor people warmly into my home. (One of the reasons that we have Chalav Yisrael (special kosher milk) in our home, is so that the collectors can drink a cup of coffee with milk). I ask them to sit, and inquire about the reason they are collecting, and make a special effort to treat them with dignity.

My wife and I very much wanted our children to be involved in the process, so we asked our children to join us whenever the poor people would arrive. We have a specially designated envelope with cash for our children to give to the poor when we are not home. During the several times a year that we write out large numbers of checks to different causes, we ask our children to help us decide to which charities we will give and what amounts, and to help us address and stamp the envelopes. There is also a homeless person who has been coming to our home for over twenty years every Wednesday night for food and relaxation. It isn’t easy to provide this hospitality, but it makes a big difference, and has had a major impact on me and my family, and of course, hopefully on the poor person as well.

The Kli Yakar (popular bible commentary, authored by R’ Shlomo Ephraim Lunshitz, c.1550-1619, Rosh Yeshiva in Lemberg and Rabbi of Prague) says that the reason the verse in Exodus 22:24 states: “et heh’ah’nee eeh’mach” [when you lend money to] the poor person who is with you, is that the person you help is essentially your partner. You help him by providing for his needs, and he helps you by providing you with the opportunity to help him. Of course, we must always keep in mind that but for the grace of G-d, that poor person could have been us.

May you be blessed.