“Richie.” A homeless man silently appeals for spare change. Artwork by Tammy Grubbs

by Charles Burack

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1988, I was struck by the number of people living on the streets in Berkeley and Oakland. I had lived in other cities, including Chicago and New York, where there were also many homeless people, but I’d never seen so many needy individuals congregating on sidewalks and asking for spare change.
Over the years, my relationship with homeless people has changed dramatically as I have searched my heart and my Jewish heritage for a caring way to respond.
At first I gave out spare change somewhat randomly. Some days I gave to one person; other days I gave to several; and occasionally I gave to no one. The amounts ranged from a dime to a couple of dollars, though usually I gave a quarter.
I felt both a desire and a resistance to giving. I could sense that some of the askers genuinely needed help, and I felt a real desire to help them. But as a graduate student living off loans and part-time teaching in the late 1980s, I knew I could not give to everyone I encountered. It was obvious I had to make choices.
Initially, my decision-making process about whether and how much to give was fairly complex and haphazard. It was affected by the mood I was in, how preoccupied or hurried I was, the way I was asked, my sense of the person’s economic and emotional neediness, and my feeling about my own financial situation.
Often I felt guilty about not being able to help everyone who asked. I usually felt disturbed by those individuals who were gruff, demanding, or threatening. I wondered how many individuals were truly needy and how many were just avoiding finding work.
After a few years, I convinced myself that by giving money to homeless people, I was rewarding them for not seeking work and was possibly enabling certain individuals to buy drugs and alcohol. I decided it was more prudent to give only to established charities. In that way, I could be sure that the money would be used to good end.
I took this approach for a couple of months but soon began to feel rather mean-spirited. It seemed hard-hearted to pass dozens of homeless people every day and not respond to their requests for help. Many individuals definitely looked needy. Some were ill-clad and ill-bathed, and others clearly had mental and physical health problems.
I asked myself: Why should I leave it to other people to help these individuals? What if everyone were to act as I do and just walk by, saying “sorry” or “no” or nothing at all? So I returned to my former practice of giving in a somewhat arbitrary way. But to those I didn’t give money, I started saying, “not today,” because I knew I would eventually give them something — and indeed I usually did.
This approach seemed to be an improvement over the two previous ones, so I stayed with it for several years. But I was always aware I was still being rather arbitrary about when and how much I gave. Too much depended on what I was feeling during the encounter, and I was still concerned about how the money was being spent.

A homeless woman asks for spare change on the streets of San Francisco. Helping the poor may be a simple act of kindness, yet it is simultaneously a holly act of utmost importance. Robert L. Terrell photo

One day, I expressed my concerns to a friend who is a longtime resident of Berkeley. He suggested that I buy Berkeley food coupons so that I’d know the money was being spent on worthwhile things. It seemed like a good idea. But just as I was about to buy some coupons, I realized there was something controlling and paternalistic about only giving away coupons. The implicit message is: “I don’t trust you. I’ll give to you only if you spend your money on things I consider worthy.”
I decided it wasn’t right to be tacitly telling another person, “I know what is best for you.” So I decided not to buy the coupons and to continue giving coins out randomly. I still felt some unease about this, but didn’t know what else to do.

Charity is a mitzvah

Around the turn of the millennium, I developed a new approach to giving that was informed by my reconnection with my Jewish roots. In my youth, I had loved the Jewish tradition and had even entered Orthodox rabbinical school, but a crisis in faith compelled me to walk away from both the rabbinate and Judaism.
A decade later, I returned to Judaism through the Jewish Renewal movement, which weds mystical teachings and practices with progressive thinking, social engagement, and creative action. A central teaching from Jewish tradition is that giving charity (tzedekah) is a religious obligation (mitzvah) and moral duty — and not simply a matter of voluntary philanthropic desire. I had learned this teaching in Hebrew high school, but had evidently not fully appreciated its implications for me.
Such a teaching runs counter to the contemporary view that charity is giving from the heart. The modern view does not recognize our inherent responsibility to those who are less fortunate. In contrast, the Jewish tradition considers charity to be a prescribed act of justice to ensure that the poor and disadvantaged are taken care of.
Indeed, the Hebrew words for charity (tzedakah) and justice (tzedek) share the same root. In Biblical times, the term tzedakah was “often used synonymously with justice, truth, kindness, ethical conduct, help and deliverance” (Birnbaum note on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, p. 156).
The Talmud considers obligatory giving to be on a higher spiritual level than voluntary giving. Why? Because when a person gives out of a sense of obligation rather than just from the heart, he or she is “not personally involved” but is “simply acting as a conduit for the tzedakah” (Cooper, God Is a Verb, p. 196).

Giving with an open hand

One of the most important texts summarizing the Rabbinic view of tzedakah is the Mishneh Torah, written by the great medieval Talmudist, philosopher, and doctor, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, popularly known as Maimonides. After citing Deuteronomy 15:8 and Leviticus 25:35-36, which declare the religious duty to “open your hand to” and “maintain” the poor, Maimonides explains that, “You are commanded to give the poor man whatever he needs” and to give “cheerfully and gladly, while sympathizing with him who is in trouble” (pp. 155, 158).
A person is obliged to give not only to indigent community members but also to indigent strangers and sojourners. Moreover, if the person gives “in a surly manner and with a gloomy face,” then the merit of the deed is “nullified” even if the person gave “a thousand gold pieces.”
The precept to give charity is so important that the Talmud says it “is equivalent to all the other religious precepts combined, as it says [in Isaiah 32:17], ‘And the work of tzedakah shall be peace, and the effect of tzedakah quiet and confidence for ever’” (Baba Batra, 9a).
Echoing the Talmud’s high valuation of charity, Maimonides says that “we must observe the precept of tsedakah more carefully than any other affirmative command, because tsedakah is characteristic of an upright person, the offspring of our father Abraham” (Mishneh Torah, p. 157).
In the Jewish mystical tradition, Abraham is the exemplar of the spiritual quality of lovingkindness (chesed). This quality is one of boundless generosity and unconditional love. Ultimately, love and compassion are the basis of justice — and in the highest acts of tzedakah, the energies of love, compassion, and justice are all fully present.
The Jewish High Holiday prayerbook also stresses the power and importance of tzedakah, saying that it, in combination with repentance and prayer, can mitigate the consequences of prior misdeeds (ma’avirin et roah ha-gizerah). In effect, tzedakah can rectify bad karma and set us on a new and better path.
Reflecting on these teachings, I realized that by allowing whim and mood to determine my giving to people on the street, I was giving charity at a very low level. Indeed, it would be a terrible world if people only gave to the poor when they were feeling generous.
In contrast, when we give out of a sense of responsibility to our fellow human beings — a sense that we are ultimately part of one human family — we become purer, less ego-involved channels for the flow of charitable energy.
One question I often wrestled with was whether to give a large sum of money to one person or to divide up the money and give it to many people. Maimonides recommended giving multiple small sums because it benefits more people and also “multiplies” the giver’s “spirit of generosity” (commentary to Mishah Avot 3:15).
I realized that if I made the giving of tzedakah into a daily and frequent spiritual practice, I would not only be helping many others but would also be expanding my own heart. The practice of tzedakah deepens our compassion for and connection with others — and that deepened compassionate connection enlarges our future acts of tzedakah.
A surprising teaching from the Talmud suggests that the one who asks for charity is actually more meritorious than the one who gives charity! Why? Because “He who causes others to do good things is greater than the doer” (Baba Batra 9a).

The holy call to kindness

It is the one who asks for assistance that creates the conditions for justice and compassion to enter the world. When we respond to that opportunity, that holy call to kindness, we bring blessing into our lives and into the lives of all we touch. Each act of generosity ripples outward into the universe, initiating new waves of goodness.
Maimonides advised that it is better to give without waiting to be asked. We are obligated to give according to our means, unless we know for sure that the person is really well off and is just deceiving us. I decided I didn’t want to play the role of judge in determining who is really needy. Each person has the right to determine his or her own needs.
The highest level of charity, according to Maimonides, is helping the poor to become self-supporting by offering them a gift or loan, entering into a partnership with them, or providing them with work. On a similar note, the Talmud says it is better to teach someone how to fish than to give them a fish. A fish provides a meal for a day, while fishing provides a lifelong source of both food and income.
These teachings inspired me to alter my practice of giving to homeless people. Initially, I decided I could afford to give a dollar a day. Generally, I gave a quarter to the first four individuals I saw. When I didn’t see four homeless people, I gave larger sums on the next day or gave to more than four people.
Usually, I gave to individuals who didn’t even ask; if I saw a cup or can, I just threw in a coin. Once a man was sitting on a bus bench talking to a friend. His can was between them, and he seemed to forget its existence as they spoke animatedly. I walked over and dropped a coin in, surprising both him and his friend.
When my income increased, I began giving a dollar to each person who was soliciting spare change. I can say that each day I look forward to giving away my dollars. Sometimes, I break my usual approach and give more because I don’t want to be bound too rigidly or complacently by my own rules. Charitable deeds should not be rule-bound. Rules only establish minimums, and open hearts are never satisfied with minimums. Love exceeds obligation, and kindness goes beyond the requirements of justice.
The Talmud teaches that if a person “is anxious to give charity, the Holy One, blessed be He, furnishes him money with which to give it” (Baba Batra, 9b).

Giving is a daily practice

Since beginning this daily practice a decade ago, my total giving has increased significantly. I give more to the homeless and to charities and am more generous with friends and family. The practice definitely fosters the spirit of giving — and it makes giving feel necessary and natural.
Despite the progress I have made, I am always aware that my tzedakah can be extended even further. Often, I pray for a greater sense of inner abundance so that I will give more joyfully and generously.
I have come to understand abundance as more a state of mind than a financial situation. There are wealthy people who are plagued by a sense of scarcity, as well as indigent people who are magnanimous with their time and resources.
One extremely magnanimous person was the Baal Shem Tov, the amazing 18th-century mystic, healer, and founder of Chasidism. He grew up in poverty and was orphaned at six, yet when he finally came of age and started earning an income, he made it a weekly practice to give all of his earnings to the poor except what was necessary to meet the basic needs of his family (Buxbaum, Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov, p. 157).
Numerous Chasidic stories tell of individuals carrying out anonymous acts of charity. Sometimes, even the town miser is secretly giving large donations to orphans and widows! The Talmud says that whoever “gives charity in secret is greater than Moses our Teacher”! (Baba Batra, 9b).
I am continually mindful that if I didn’t have the good fortune of growing up in a caring family with decent financial means, I, too, could be on the streets. “There go I but for the grace of God” is a thought that often passes through my mind.
I am fortunate to have the peace of mind of knowing that if I were down to my last dollar, I could move in with loving family or friends. Many homeless people don’t have this option. They have become alienated and isolated, lost in the margins and alleyways of our society.
Surely, they are entitled to our daily deeds of justice and compassion. Surely, they deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. Surely, they are to be thanked for giving us the opportunity — the holy obligation — to give and to receive.
Charles Burack is a psychology professor at John F. Kennedy University who teaches integrative approaches to psychology, literature and spirituality. He also has taught at UC Berkeley, St. Mary’s College, Starr King School of Ministry and Naropa University. His deepening understanding of the Jewish tradition has shaped his commitment to homeless people and others in need.