The Column | Flexing my tzedakah muscle



Just about every evening when I leave the J. office, I pass by Ansar. He’s an African American man, probably in his 50swho sits in a wheelchair at the corner of Sansome and Bush in downtown San Francisco, holding out a tattered paper cup for donations.


I usually don’t give money to people on the streets, heeding the maxim that it’s better to give to organizations that help the homeless than risk feeding someone’s drug or alcohol addiction.

But I always give Ansar a dollar. The guy has no legs. Sometimes he has a colostomy bag hanging from his chair. Not only that, but his brain is addled. When I’ve tried to speak to him, I don’t get much beyond his name.

The first time I saw Ansar, I’m not sure whether I gave him anything or not. But one day I gave him a dollar, and the pattern was set. Now every day as I step out onto the street, I look to the corner to see whether his chair is there or not. If it is, I reach into my wallet and get the dollar ready. I put it into his cup with a friendly comment — “Here you go,” or, “How’s it going today?” He smiles and nods his head slowly, his lower lip pushed out slightly, and gives me a quiet “thank you” or sometimes, “thank you, baby.”

One time I saw his chair ahead of me and I only had twenties in my wallet. No dollar. Feeling awkward, I crossed the street and zipped into Walgreen’s so I wouldn’t have to walk in front of him without putting something in his cup. I hovered in the store for a minute, feigning interest in the gum selection, feeling more and more uneasy. My stomach gurgled, and I felt off-kilter. Not quite right.

I was having a physical reaction to not giving tzedakah.

I looked across the street and saw Ansar’s chair from behind, his back ramrod straight — a silent rebuke. And then I realized it: Ansar had become my tzedakah marker. I don’t feel generous when I give him my dollar. And although he always thanks me, he never seems surprised. This is just what we are supposed to do — I am supposed to give him a dollar, and he is supposed to accept it. That is our little part to play in keeping the universe in balance.

So how does this fit in with the Jewish idea of tzedakah, which, after all, means “justice” rather than “charity?” On one hand, it’s a vivid illustration of that definition. In the Jewish concept of tzedakah, both the giver and the recipient play equally important roles, whereas in charity, the giver inhabits a higher moral plane than the unfortunate recipient.

In this understanding, Ansar is vitally important to me. He makes giving tzedakah part of my daily routine. Without him, I cannot do it. Well, I can, but I don’t. He helps me do that mitzvah, which I believe helps me develop.

On the other hand, why does our little daily dollar two-step get me off the hook? Am I not obliged to give to every homeless person who asks? And what about those who do not ask, whom I cannot see because they are in another town or country?

What is my universe of obligation?

As is often the case when I’m thinking about tzedakah, Ruth Messinger has something to say about it. The president of American Jewish World Service and one of my personal heroes, Messinger was in town this past weekend to speak at various Jewish venues.

On Monday, she led a breakfast workshop at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, where she had us consider several talmudic texts on the question. Not surprisingly, our tradition offers seemingly contradictory advice. Whereas Bava Metzia 71a states that we should give to Jews and our neighbors first, and only then to non-Jews and foreigners, Gittin 61a says we are obliged to give equally to all in need.

“Trying to define the universe of obligation is incredibly difficult,” Messinger said.

Then she told me something she once heard from philanthropy expert and writer Danny Siegel. Asked whether it’s better to give 1,000 shekels to one person or one shekel to 1,000 different people, Siegel chose the latter.

Each has its value, certainly. Giving a meaningful gift to one organization presumably gets you more bang for your buck, as well as professional accountability. But giving often, even in small amounts, brings more people into the circle of giving and makes it part of everyday life. As Siegel put it, it exercises your tzedakah muscle.

Thanks, Ansar. I guess you’re my personal trainer.

Sue Fishkoff
is the editor of j., and can be reached at [email protected]

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].