For the week ending 21 June 2008 / 18 Sivan 5768

Begging the Question

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Jamie in Jerusalem

Dear Rabbi,

Is there any difference in Judaism between asking for charity and begging for it? Let me explain: I’m talking about people at religious sites like the Kotel who not only ask for charity but they persistently and sometimes rudely beg for money and they don’t let you alone, or they even get angry if you don’t give. Is that right, and should such people be allowed to be at those places? It seems hardly appropriate for such holy settings.

Dear Jamie,

I completely understand your question, and many people feel the same way you do about the situation. Still, allow me to give another perspective on the matter.

I’ll say from the outset that it’s not my intention to condone such behavior, nor shall I defend such behavior as befitting of the holy places. However, since neither you nor I can change those people or the situation, what I hope to do is change our way of looking at it and thus utilize it as an opportunity for growth.

In times of old, when poverty was more widespread and more acute, many people had at least minor bouts with, and often more long-term experiences with, poverty. This resulted in major differences regarding charity between those times and ours. For one, people were more sensitive to others’ plight, often having felt poverty themselves in some way; and second, a greater part of the poor were normal, average people who simply suffered from bad times. As a result, charity was a more natural phenomenon where people who had also knew what it is not to have, and those who needed were not necessarily lacking stability of character.

Nowadays, in modern, western countries, most people are able to earn at least some kind of income and maintain a relatively decent, if simple, lifestyle. An average person who works hard will probably never be homeless or without food. The result is that the majority of those who end up having to turn to begging on the streets are usually the emotionally or mentally unstable individuals who aren’t willing or able to hold a job; while those who “work hard for their living” aren’t sensitive to the needy, looking upon them with disdain and indignation because of being begged.

To be sure, this is only a generalization. Many who have are generous, and many who beg are just “average” people in bad straits. Still, what I wrote above might be the reason behind what you describe as the difference between those who ask and those who beg: Your average poor person will not demand, nor will he curse if denied. Such behavior is probably an indication that the “beggar” is in the second category of those lacking personal stability and therefore should not be judged harshly, nor should one take personal offence at any inappropriate behavior.

Another idea to consider is that when we pray to G-d and beseech Him for our needs, we generally feel that G-d desires our prayer and our requests. And even if we are aware of our shortcomings and transgressions, we feel that if we truly pray and ask from our hearts, G-d will hear and accept. In this way, we the needy, in prayer, ask G-d for charity and mercy. But who is to say that the spiritual garments in which we appear before Him are presentable? And how do we know that our use of language, etiquette and demeanor are pleasant and appropriate in front of G-d? We might very well appear sullied, insolent and impetuous, audaciously begging and demanding handouts we don’t “deserve”. Can we say with certainty that vis-à-vis G-d we are different than the beggars who rudely grab hold of our arms, demand our alms and quibble with our qualms?

And yet, G-d overlooks our inappropriate begging, listens and gives. Should we not, then, have compassion on these souls, our brethren, whom we certainly resemble more than we resemble G-d. And if we view them with disdain, resent them in our hearts, wish they would go away and no longer bother us with their demands, how can we possibly go to these places to appear before G-d, beseech Him and ask, pray and plead that He grant us our needs and desires?

In this light, then, Jaime, we need those needy — and particularly in those places of prayer. They give us the opportunity to give. They enable us to learn tolerance, patience and compassion. And if, overcoming condescension, we give with compassion, they grant us the right to beg before G-d.

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