Rabbi, Do we give to the people with cups and cardboard signs asking for money on the street?

Weekly Bulletin

Sent Out May 31, 2018


Rabbi, Do we give to the people with cups and cardboard signs asking for money on the street? What if they use the money to buy drugs or alcohol? We can’t possibly know what they’ll do with it, can we?

During rabbinical school in Cincinnati, I lived in a beautiful, walkable neighborhood surrounded by Victorian-style houses, apartments, shops, and the characters of Ludlow Avenue. Just a two-minute walk from my apartment we had a theatre that showed artsy films and midnight showings of Rocky Horror Picture Show. We had the Moroccan restaurant, Graeter’s ice cream, coffee shops, our neighborhood bar, a small, unbecoming concert venue, and lots and lots of people. When I walked to Ludlow Ave, I always carried dollar bills, because, on the corner of Telford and Ludlow, there was usually someone standing there, asking for money. 

This person was familiar; they were often there with their kind eyes and gentle demeanor. But every once in a while, some new faces were asking for money. One evening, on my way to meet friends at the neighborhood bar, a man approached me to see if I had a dollar to spare. “No problem,” I said, as I handed him the bill, and shared words of blessing.

About ten minutes later, as I sat in the bar, chatting with friends, in walked the man I had given my dollar bill. He sat down at the bar and ordered a drink. At first, I was a little bit crushed. Did I pay for part of that man’s beer? Did I encourage his drinking? Oy, maybe I should stop giving out dollars to the people on Ludlow Avenue, I thought. 

As I sat there, contemplating the story that had just transpired, I reminded myself of a teaching from the 18th century, Chasidic Rebbe, Chaim of Sanz: “The merit of charity is so great that I am happy to give to one hundred beggars even if only one might actually be needy. Some people, however, act as if they are exempt from giving charity to one hundred beggars in the event that one might be a fraud.”

I much rather be in the company of those from the first clause:  I am happy to give to the many who ask, even if only one might actually be needy. How about you?