27 Elul 5774
By Dr. Martin Graffman
The Jewish Prophets instruct me that God Commands me to charitably give to those who need my help. The Prophets specifically indicate the widows and orphans, but Torah liberally includes the blind and the deaf. I therefore have universalized the Commandment.
If I obey the Commandment, the Torah promises me Blessings… and… if I disobey It, curses. The Rabbis include an eternal heavenly life among the Blessings, but I believe none of that. I haven’t witnessed a heaven, and I believe it’s an impossible fantasy. Moreover, a promised blissful life after death doesn’t appear to compensate for the continuing evil after I die. I’m not sure I want the alleged Blessing when good people suffer. It just ain’t worth it.
Yes, I recognize there’s a positive value in charity. Merely giving to charity helps me feel grateful and expressing gratitude to God (by any name) helps me enjoy a sense of contentment, fulfillment or Shalom.
The gift of money to an alcoholic or a schizophrenic pan-handler provides me with a reminder that I’m happy I don’t walk in his shoes. Hmm…does his discomfort lead to my Blessing? I recognize I have power – the power to help him – even if it’s only momentarily and does not permanently rectify his situation. If I have the power to help him, perhaps I have the power to help myself. If I have the power to help anyone, I experience more confidence and less anxiety. And, if I have the power to help someone, perhaps someone has the power to help me.
These are rational ideas, yet for years I was unable to act as charitably as I believed I could or should. The solution to my dilemma came as a result of a conversation with a trusted friend. He suggested I was fearful of being taken advantage of by a psychopath, thereby revealing my vulnerability and weakness. Or, I might want to use the money to buy stuff to keep up with the Joneses, thus displaying my fear of social weakness.
Armed with these insights, I devised a plan of action I still use. I keep dollar bills and quarters in my car and my pocket. Whenever I get a request for some “change,” I immediately give some money. I don’t delude myself with the excuse that I’m merely enabling a chronically ill sufferer who, without the handout, would sober up. I don’t deny he probably will use the money for a drink or a fix. He became an addict long before I entered the scene, and if he is simply down and out, my donation can buy him a meal.
The act permits me to feel good, i.e. experience pleasure. I recognize I’m powerful enough to affect reality. The act proves it. There are helpless people out there and they’re not just statistics. I’m sufficiently powerful and able to do something – not everything, but something. And so what if they take advantage of me. These are unreliable people, who cannot rely even on themselves. On the other hand, I’m reliable enough to recognize my God-given strength, wisdom and resilience – at least enough to affect the world and even partially repair it. I prove I’m sufficiently powerful to limit my own anxiety, greediness, and irresponsibility. At that brief moment in time, I prove through action and not fantasy that I am strong, alert, aware, responsible and grateful. And, at that same moment, I recognize obeying the Law of Tzedakah, (Righteousness or Doing the Right Thing) permits me to enjoy these benefits.
Do I give enough to these people and to other people and organizations? I do not know. But I’m working on it…