One night a little while ago as I was returning home on the N train, a young woman entered the train. She looked about 30 years old. She said: "Good evening ladies and gentlemen, my name is Debra, I am homeless, I have cancer and I'm trying to get something to eat. Please help me."
I had no spare change, but several of the other passengers dropped quarters and dollars into her worn-out cup. She smiled and thanked them and quickly disappeared into the next train car.
You might ask, why do I bother to write about this episode? Hundreds of beggars roam the streets in a struggle to survive. Some of them collect cans and bottles, others look for food in garbage cans so not to starve, and it is as common to see peddlers and schnorers as it is to see taxi drivers and mail-men.
Though, what should I do about my naivete? As many times as I see street ridden people, I still can't believe that within our luxurious society there are hundreds and thousands of unfortunate people living in the gutters and in the cold.
My curiosity about these shadowy people began when I was a small child. I recall driving through the Bowery with my dad and watching old men approach our automobile offering to wash the windshield. My father would always roll down the window and give them a nickel or a dime.
"Who are these people?" I asked -- and those of you who know my father, Gershon Jacobson, the editor of the Algemeiner Journal, will appreciate his answer. "They are bums," my father answered.
"So why are you giving them money?" I asked. "Because this is how they make a living", he answered.
Sharing a Slice of Pizza
Ten years ago, on a freezing Saturday night when I was returning from New York to my studies at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown New Jersey, my friends and I stopped for pizza and then drove down Canal Street to the Holland tunnel. As we stopped for a red light, I noticed a beggar standing at the corner holding out his hat. There was one hot slice of pizza left in the box, I rolled down the window, said good evening to the man and handed him the box with the slice of kosher pizza. We all watched to see what he would do. He walked over to the other paupers who were sleeping in cardboard boxes all cuddled up, he woke them up and mumbled "hot pizza." There were four of them, three men and a woman, they split the slice of pizza into four and divided it among them equally. We drove off feeling sorry yet amazed at the reality of these lost and abandoned human beings and their way of life.
I recall another story. In the early eighties when I was studying in Los Angeles, I went with my friend Chaim Brafman to do laundry. In the laundromat there were always derelicts and bag-ladies. On this particular night a man, about 35 years of age, was going through the garbage. I noticed that he found an empty container of milk, and tried squeezing a drop of milk into his mouth. I approached the man and said: "Excuse me sir, but would you mind if I asked you a question?" He said: "Go ahead." I asked him: "When was the last time you had a real cup of milk?", he shrugged his shoulders, grinned and responded: "When I was five years old."
I gave him some money and told him to go next door to a 24-hour Seven-Eleven, and buy a container of milk and a piece of cake. He went to the fridge, took out a small container of milk, returned to me and asked if I would mind if he took a container of chocolate milk, I said: "Absolutely."
This act of charity cost me a dollar and change.
When I returned to the laundromot, my friend Chaim Brafman says to me: “You know, Boruch, I just found a dollar.” I said: "Wow Chaim, you are a rich man, but that dollar belongs to me! I just spent a buck helping a poor human being, so heaven returned it to me.”
Charity is affordable
Some people are scared to give charity because their funds might be depleted. Nonsense, I say. The more you give the more you get.
Others argue that we must be cautious when distributing charity, to make sure the funds are allocated properly. But sometimes it is a life or death situation. One of the reasons we don't make a blessing on the mitzvah of giving charity, like on all other mitzvoth, is because if we pause even for a minute, the beggar might be gone.
Most importantly, charity is accomplished not only by distributing money, but in many other ways -- by giving advice, educating a fellow human being, visiting the sick, having guests for a meal, returning lost property. Sometimes even a simple smile can be a great act of giving.
There is a story about Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch (1834-1882) and his wife, Rebbetzin Rivkah. Rabbi Shmuel would travel often, sometimes his wife would travel with him, and on several occasions his wife stayed home. Before departing, Rabbi Shmuel would give Rebbetzin Rivkah money for all the necessary living expenses, including large sums for distributing to charity. Being that Rebbetzin Rivkah was very generous, the charity allowance left by her husband would run out quickly, and she would pawn off her personal belongings and jewelry, to earn extra charity funds for the poor.
When Rabbi Shmuel would come home he would immediately ask his wife Rivkah where she sold her belongings, and he would gladly redeem every last item.
We might not all be able to emulate this type of generosity. But surely we can afford a dollar a day, or a loaf of bread, or at least a smile and a word of encouragement, to our friends, our neighbors or a stranger in the dark.
The late Lubavitcher Rebbe suggested something beautiful and powerful: Every kitchen should have a charity box, as to remind us before every meal that there are needy people who don't enjoy three meals a day, or even a kitchen. We ought to help them any way we can.