Giving With Dignity
In a number of places in the Torah, we are instructed to give charity to the poor. One of those exhortations is in Parshas Behar: "If your brother becomes impoverished, and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him - proselyte or resident - so that he can live with you." (1) The commentaries explain that this particular verse is focusing on giving to a person who has begun to lose his financial independence, but is not yet on the level of being a fully fledged ani (poor person).(2) The Torah specifically exhorts us to give to this kind of person, to the extent that some commentaries write that there is a specific mitzvah in and of itself to give to a person who is on the way to becoming poor.(3) The reasoning being that when one gives to someone who is not yet fully dependent on others, he has a lesser feeling of shame at being the recipient of charity.
The Rambam in his outline of the laws of giving charity develops this theme. He writes that there are eight different levels of giving charity, and the highest form is giving to a person in such a way that he will not need to continually rely on charity, rather he will become independent.(4) His source is the words in Behar. "and you shall strengthen him". The Beit Yosef elaborates as to why this is the highest form of charity; he explains that giving to someone in such a way that enables him to be independent is of such great value because the recipient is not embarrassed by the help he is receiving. This is mainly because he does not see himself as taking a handout. We know that it is human nature that we want to earn our own livelihood, and that we lose our sense of dignity when we are forced to receive gifts. Therefore, giving in such a way that the recipient does not feel this lack of dignity is considered to be a great feat, over and above the actual giving in and of itself.
We learn from here an important lesson in all forms of charity and kindness: It is of the highest import to ensure that the recipient feel the minimum amount of embarrassment about the fact that he is being given something. Indeed, the highest level would be to try to ensure that the recipient does not feel that he is being helped at all, rather he is in some way helping the giver! This idea is brought out by a novel interpretation of a difficult Gemara.
The Gemara comments that if a person says, "I will give this coin to charity so that my son will live," meaning, specifically so that the merit of this Mitzva will restore the health of his seriously ill son, such a man is a "Tzadik Gamor" - an exceptionally righteous person.(5) Many commentators ask why such a person, who explicitly performs this Mitzva with ulterior motives in mind, earns this laudatory description. Rav Mordechai Banet explains homiletically, that the Gemara refers to an individual who gives charity and wants to ensure that the recipient will not feel any shame in accepting his donation. He therefore tells the pauper that to the contrary, he - the donor - benefits from this charitable donation, because he has a sick child who may likely be cured in the merit of this Mitzva. The Gemara teaches that such a person, who devises a method of giving charity while avoiding humiliation on the part of the impoverished recipient, is a "Tzadik Gamor" - an exceptionally pious individual.
In this vein, the story is told of a man who purchased stacks of wood and placed them in his porch in the front of his house. When he would meet a poor person, he would hire him to move the wood for him to the back of the house; when he would then come upon another person in need, he would hire him to move the stacks back to the porch. In this way, he provided financial assistance to those who so desperately needed it, while ensuring to preserve their dignity by having them feel that they earned the money, rather than receiving a handout.(6)
It is not always possible to make the receiver feel like he is in fact the giver, however it is always essential to try to maintain the dignity of the recipient as much as possible. One of the great baalei chesed of recent years who excelled in this area was Rav Zalman Ashkenazi. He single handedly created the organization Mesamchei Lev, through which thousands of poor people received food and clothing. He was responsible for the distribution of 62,000 pairs of shoes, 30,000 pounds of matzo, and 4,000 cases of wine before Pesach; 300,000 pounds of meat and poultry before the High Holy Days; close to 500 mishloach manos baskets to widows and widowers, each containing an envelope with money before Pesach; and he helped fund dozens of weddings for orphaned brides and grooms each year. However, he was not satisfied with the fact that he was providing so much physical aid. He was always highly concerned that the recipients maintain their dignity. Despite trying to remain hidden, when he was identified by recipients, the only thing he would ask is, "Is it dignified enough; It's not demeaning?"
We have seen how giving in such a way that the beneficiary maintains his self-respect is so important that giving that fits that category is considered the highest form of charity. May we all merit to be able to give the needy, but let them not feel like they are takers.
1. Vayikra, 25:35.
2. Rashi, Vayikra, 25:35.
3. See Ohel Moshe, Vayikra, 25:35 for discussion of this topic at length.
4. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Matanos Aniyim, 10:7-14. For example, giving him a loan or helping him find work. The Beis Yosef adds that even an outright gift will not embarrass the person who is not yet totally needy, because it is normal for friends to give gifts to each other even if they are not in great need.
5. Pesachim, 8a-b.
6. The explanation from Rav Banet, and the accompanying story, are taken from a written account of a shiur by Rav Eli Mansour shlit"a.