I recently got into a debate on the set of "Shalom in the Home" with one of my producers. A subscriber to the extreme capitalism and "greed is good" values of social philosopher Ayn Rand, he said that he would never give money to beggars on the street. "It encourages them to be dependent and in that sense it hurts them and it hurts society. We get these lazy, unproductive people whom we have to support." I have listened to many other arguments from those who passionately believe that we should not give money to homeless people. I have heard it said that such undesirables are an eyesore on an otherwise beautiful city landscape, and that many of the homeless are mentally unstable and should be in a shelter where they can be cared for.
But by far the most arduously held opinion on the side of those opposed to giving money to people asking on city streets is that they will use it for something bad, like alcohol or drugs. I remember that once, while walking with one of my students at Oxford University about a decade ago, he gave a man who asked him for money a half-eaten candy bar. "That way I know he’s getting food," he told me. But the man with his hand out examined the curious gift and said, "My, that’s tacky."
My own opinion, and practice, is that we must give to those who ask of us. I am well aware that the people in question can abuse the money we give them. But there is an even more important consideration that must be taken into account, namely, human dignity.
I believe that our primary obligation on God’s earth is to bestow dignity on all of God’s children, and indeed on all of God’s creatures. To bestow dignity is to make someone feel like they matter, it is to make them feel important. When someone speaks to us and we ignore them, we make them feel like they are nonexistent. When we walk right by people and pretend they are not there, we make them feel like their lives are inconseqential. And passing by a man or woman who has been reduced to begging, especially with heads raised so that we avoid eye contact, confirms in their mind their status as subhumans.
When I give a homeless person a dollar, I am not motivated by reasons of charity. I do not flatter myself that my one dollar is going to make any material difference in their lives. But it will make a difference in their sense of dignity. I give it because that one dollar is a small price to pay for the purchasing and bestowing of human significance upon one of God’s forlorn children.
By stopping in my tracks, looking them graciously in the eye, giving them a dollar, and saying, "God bless you," I am afforded an opportunity to live out the purpose of my existence, namely, to make all of God’s children feel important.
Yes, I recognize that the money can be abused, and yes, it can create a dependency. But the main reason people are reduced to begging is that they have lost a sense of their own dignity. They are no longer ashamed of their circumstances because shame can only be experienced by those who esteem themselves. Shame is the human alarm bell that goes off whenever our actions strip us of our own self-respect. So, my tiny gesture of simply acknowledging that they are my human brothers, by virtue of a small token of support, has the effect of recognizing and affirming their infinite value, and lends itself to the possibility that they will become cognizant of the state to which they have fallen, and endeavor, to whatever degree, to pull themselves out.
My point, which will no doubt have many dissenters, is best illustrated by an actual event.
About a month before the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, I was walking late one night with my wife and children through beautiful Jackson Square in New Orleans. I gave a dollar to a man who asked if I could spare change, and I made sure not to miss the opportunity because my children were watching. The man was holding a small brown paper bag with what looked to be a can of beer inside. I put the dollar in his hand and I said to him, "You look like a really special man. You have kind eyes. You’re too good a man to throw your life away on booze. So promise me you’re going to do something good with this, like buy food." The man nodded his head eagerly and said, "I promise." I told him, "God bless you," and he asked that God bless me too, and I walked off.
As I did so, my eldest daughter said, "Tatty, you know he’s gonna’ go and buy liquor. So why did you give it to him?" I responded, "Because you can’t just walk by a guy with his hand out and pretend he is thin air. That’s probably how he got to where he is in the first place. In his own mind he became thin air, and he probably had a lot of people who also treated him like he was one big zero. Now, in a brief interaction, I can’t rescue him. But I can give him a moment of dignity, a solitary second of human acknowledgement which reminds him that he is my brother, equal in every way but one: that I am still trying to raise myself up through my own exertions while he has tragically fallen into dependency." My daughter still thought I was wrong. But a few days later, as she walked through the streets of Vicksburg, Miss., I caught her giving a man on the street a dollar and making him promise he would do something positive with it.
The Lubavitcher rebbe used to give out dollars to thousands of people who came to him every Sunday. The rebbe knew they waited not for the dollar, which he gave in order to inspire people to give more charity, but for the blessing of being even momentarily in his presence.
And of the maybe 50 or 60 times that the rebbe gave me a dollar, he never once asked me what I would do with it, but trusted me to do something good with it.