Smiles are free

The Torah also wished us to have personal contact with the poor and the needy. Halacha not only dictates that we should give charity, but also the attitude that we exhibit when so doing.

While in the United States, I heard of a recent survey taken at the end of the calendar year regarding charitable giving in the world's wealthiest society. The survey found that the average American contributes to charity 10 times a year. It apparently did not reveal the amount of money contributed by this hypothetical average American; it only dealt with the number of times he gave money to a charitable cause. This seeming paucity in giving charity contrasts sharply with the situation that exists in all religious Jewish circles both here and throughout the Diaspora. On an average Sunday in Monsey, as I recall it, people gave 10 donations on one single day. And in the communities that I visited in the US, I can testify that this situation has not changed at all. The Talmud taught us that "the needs of Your people are many." The Torah itself warned us that "the poor will not disappear from the face of the earth." Giving charity is therefore a constant and continuing feature of religious Jewish life. Charitable giving on a daily and regular basis has thus been established as a norm and primary value. Again, I do not speak of the amounts donated to charity. These amounts certainly will correctly vary from individual to individual and from cause to cause. But I do refer rather to the frequency of giving, the habitual ability to give and give again. In Jewish thought, this is the real test of charity. Though I have no empirical proof, I am convinced that the ability to be regularly charitable is connected with observance of Jewish ritual and other Torah commandments. My anecdotal experiences buttress this contention. People who need help invariably turn to neighborhoods of religious Jews to find it. The religious Jewish world has constructed a firm and elaborate system of help to those in need. This system includes hundreds of free loan societies, medical referral help, social and educational welfare programs, wedding sponsorship for indigent families and a host of other services and charitable outreach. Though governmental help can often be found to help these situations as well, the vast majority of all of this charitable help is privately funded, and by the general Jewish religious community and not by the wealthy alone. I have seen beggars share their meager collections with others whom they somehow deem to be less fortunate than they are. The Talmud even justifies giving charity to the charlatans and cheats who exploit our generosity by stating: "If it were not for the presence of those whom we suspect to be charlatans, we would possess no excuse whatsoever for not truly fulfilling our obligation of giving charity." The Torah always demands of us that we err on the side of goodness and compassion. We should never regret or feel badly about having given charity or help to others. In our overorganized society many people never give charity directly to individuals. Charity is given to large organizations that are then charged with its distribution. These organizations are valuable and necessary and most of them are clever and honest and efficient. Yet this type of charitable giving is faceless, unemotional and to a great extent impersonal. This type of giving also restricts the number of times a person gives. Maimonides points out that it is better to give five shekels to 10 different poor people than to give 50 shekels to one person. The amount of charity given remains the same. But in giving 10 times, one trains one's hand to give, so that the muscles of charitable giving will not atrophy over time. The Torah also wished us to have personal contact with the poor and the needy. Halacha not only dictates that we should give charity, but also the attitude that we exhibit when so doing. A good word and a smile are also part of the charitable act. People who give charity as a part of a daily routine of their lives find it easier to overcome any feelings of resentment or being exploited and put upon. Thus charitable giving, to benefit the giver as much as it does the taker, must be a regular and ongoing feature of one's life. The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator.