Sometimes we are more concerned with not being duped than we are with ensuring that we achieve the right goal. Perhaps it’s okay to be naively taken advantage of a little bit if it helps ensure that we don’t harden our hearts.
The Sanzer Rav, a Hassidic leader in Galicia (on the border of modern Poland and Ukraine) in the 19th century, was reputedly so committed to helping the poor that he would not rest each day until every last penny he owned was distributed to those in need. During Sukkot, he would not only give all his money to the poor, but would try to give extra money so that the poor did not have to spend the holiday period worrying about the bills after the holiday. As he sat in his bare sukkah, he stated that while others decorated their sukkah with expensive ornaments, his sukkah was decorated with tzedakah. One man suggested to him that every beggar might not be honest and the Sanzer Rav rebuked him, saying, "Do you know the difference between you and me? I’m willing to give to a thousand poor people, even if 999 are dishonest, just to help the one who really needs the help. You are willing to turn down 999 valid requests just to protect yourself from the one who is taking advantage of you.”
We need to teach the value of tzedakah to our children from a very young age. One parent recently shared an inspiring story with me about their child. Every night before bed the kids put one of their coins into their pushka (tzedakah box). One time, their young boy woke up screaming in the middle of the night as if he was having a terrible nightmare. He then told his parents, after being calmed down, that he couldn’t remember whether or not he had given his tzedakah before sleeping and he was terrified that he may have shirked his responsibility and missed his opportunity to do the right thing.
The Sanzer Rav was so serious about not shaming an individual who may be in need that he put a great challenge upon his own son. A struggling individual came to the Rav for assistance in buying a tallis for his future son-in-law. Just as the Rav was about to buy the new tallis for him, the Rav’s son interjected – “How can you tell this lie? I saw you just yesterday buying a tallis!” The poor man quickly ran away in deep humiliation. The Rav was startled and reprimanded his son, teaching that the man may have needed something else for the wedding (like a wedding dress) which he was embarrassed to request so he asked for this. (He always tried to give people the benefit of the doubt.) The son, realizing what he had done, ran to the poor man to ask for his forgiveness. The man went back to the Rav and asked whether he should forgive his son or not. The Rav said that he should forgive him but only on the condition that he committed to paying for the entire wedding!
We must teach our children the great significance of honoring the dignity of those who approach us with their needs and of doing all we can to maximize the impact of our tzedakah.
We also must account for different personalities to ensure that all people can maximize their potential in giving. Consider this study cited in Chip and Dan Heath's Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, looking at why some college students donated to a canned-food drive and others did not. The researchers divided students into two groups: the students most likely to donate ("saints"), and those least likely to contribute ("jerks"). Then they tried to see whether the approach might affect the likelihood that even some "jerks" might contribute. Some "saints" and "jerks" randomly received a general advertising letter asking for donations for the food drive coming up the following week. Others received a more detailed letter with a specific request, a specific location, and a suggestion on when they should bring it. Students who were given the ambiguous letter did not donate much: Only 8 percent of “the "saints” gave and none of “the "jerks” gave. However, when given a letter with specific instructions, not only did 42 percent of the "saints” donate but also a whopping 25 percent of the "jerks.” Changing the situation and helping others to lead to big results! As the authors of Switch explain “If you're hungry and need a can of food, you're three times better-off relying on a jerk with a map than on a bud¬ding young saint without one.”
We must recall the lessons of the Sanzer Rav and Switch, and devote ourselves to giving and to educating for giving. Only by being the change we want to see in the world will we see it.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."