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True Tzedakah

March 1, 2006
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There are dozens of street musicians that flock to the city center, some playing classic Jewish melodies on their violins, flutes, and cellos, and others who belt out old American love songs on their battered twelve-string guitars. And there are faces that appear uninitiated, uncomfortable with their newly solicitous public position, leaving me to wonder what precarious circumstances they’ve encountered in recent days, weeks, months, and years.

Growing up in suburban-to-rural Minnesota, street beggars were foreign to my childhood experience. I was fully an adult before I first encountered beggars. Moving here to Israel, I experienced a troublesome struggle between my caring heart and my careful skepticism. I arrived knowing that charity (tzedakah) was an integral part of societal structure in Israel and in Judaism, and yet none of that prepared me to face it every time I left my apartment.

During my first months here in Israel, I encountered other Christian volunteers who dictated, “Scripture instructs us to give to those who ask of us; therefore, whenever anyone asks me for money, I feel obligated to give it to them.” Something about that didn’t ring true for me. Others approached it differently, saying, “Oh, he’s always there asking for something. He must take in hundreds of shekels every day. I’m giving my time to serve Israelis; I certainly don’t need to give my money, too.” That approach made me cringe, and somehow didn’t feel right to me either.

In the end, I adopted a personal policy that I would give freely whenever someone approached me and asked, from whatever change I had in my coin purse. That could range anywhere from a few shekels (one shekel is roughly 25 cents) to much more. For months I never felt a need to break my comfortable “tradition,” feeling quite good about my role in social tzedakah.

But one day, I observed something that changed my mind. I was waiting for the bus after work, mindlessly watching an old man sitting on the ground just a few meters away. His head was on his chest, and his shoulders bowed with the slump of dejection. His hand was outstretched toward the sidewalk, but his eyes were deliberately averted from the streaming flow of pedestrians. None of us passersby were paying him any monetary attention, and almost to our collective relief, he wasn’t pressing for it. He was simply present and passive and pitiful.

To my surprise, a young man walked by and, stopping beside the old beggar, greeted him with a friendly tap on his shoulder. The young man exchanged a few words with the man on the ground, and before walking on, he pressed a bill of some denomination into the old man’s hand. The smallest Israeli currency we have in paper form is equivalent to US $5. Surely the old man found any paper contribution a welcome improvement over whatever coinage had clattered into his cup all day long. I’m guessing my mouth fell, gaping with surprise, to see an individual stop to give, not because he was asked, but because he wanted to.

I recently accompanied a fellow volunteer, shopping for gifts for his family. The Judaica shop owners expressed that they were going out of business and told my friend that they would give him a drastically reduced price. Much to my surprise and with an impression I’ll never forget, my friend spoke to the shop owners and said, “No, I’ll pay the whole price.” The woman of the shop was moved nearly to tears, turning to me and speaking fast paced Hebrew I only peripherally absorbed. Her husband threw his arms around my friend, lifting him from the ground and expressing emotional appreciation. I stood back in wonder and realized that such an outpouring of generosity wouldn’t have occurred to me (bargain hunter that I am), and that this man’s willingness to give what he wasn’t solicited for spoke with a power unmatched by the average tourist…or Christian volunteer.

Through those two experiences, the Lord spoke to me and said, “Crystal, that is the kind of tzedakah I want you to give. Not the kind you’re asked for or pressured into giving. Not the kind that you give out of your guilt, because you don’t know how to say no. Not from the marginal leftovers of your broken bills and higher denominations. Not from your ‘careful’ budgetary mindset that seeks to get the best bargain possible. Give to the ones who don’t ask. Give bills and not coins. Give enough to feed these men and women meals, and not mere morsels. And give for the glory of My Name, not for the quelling of your conscience. Give, and give generously, as I’ve given to you!”

According to Jewish tradition, the spiritual benefit of giving to the poor is so great that a beggar actually does the giver a favor, by granting the giver an opportunity to perform tzedakah, I already know beyond a doubt that God does more good in me through the joy of my giving than in the lives of those I give to. May the Lord continue to make the gift of true tzedakah a blessing in my life.

By Crystal R. Nelson
Former volunteer with Bridges for Peace

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