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November 4, 2013 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Vayetze

This Torah portion begins with Jacob’s dream about angels climbing up and down a latter.  After waking up Jacob makes some kind of pledge at Gen. 28:22, which many sources translate as a pledge to tithe to God (see here and here for example).

Scharfstein’s translation differs.   He writes that Jacob says “Everything that you give me, I will offer a tenth to charity.”  In his commentary, he adds: “Sharing our plenty with less fortunate members of society is very important, but it has to be done in such a way that the other person does not see himself as a beggar.”  Thus, Scharfstein would apparently disapprove of giving to panhandlers.

 I think Scharfstein is letting the best be the enemy of the good here.  It is certainly true that more anonymous charity is better.  However, Maimonides lists eight levels of charity; the higher levels are indeed more anonymous, but the sixth (and presumably the seventh and eighth as well) involve giving directly to a poor person after being asked.  Thus, Maimonides asserts that giving directly to another is one of the lower levels of charity, but still better than nothing. 

Having said that, there are all sorts of complexities relating to giving to beggars.  Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes in favor of doing so (I think in the Book of Jewish Values, but it is not in front of me so I am not sure).  However, if you google “+ halacha + beggars” you will find a range of views- and discussion of unusual scenarios as well. For example, one israeli rabbi discouraged motorists from giving to panhandlers at traffic lights, reasoning that this particular mode of giving risks increasing the number of car crashes.  

Nevertheles, my broader philosophical point stands, which is that less-than-ideal conduct is still often better than nothing. 

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