Earlier this week, Jews all around the world celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins the 10 day period known as the Days of Awe or Days of Repentance. During this period, Jews consider how they can improve their lives and the lives of those around them in the year to come.
As the High Holy Days are typically the time when Jews attend synagogue in higher numbers than at any other time of the year, rabbis often take extra time and effort to send inspirational guidance to their congregations through their sermons. At my synagogue, Shaarei Shamayim (Gates of Heaven), which my wife and I helped to start nearly 30 years ago, and where I currently serve as President, Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman gave a very personal and compelling sermon on Rosh Hashanah that struck a chord with many.
Rabbi Laurie described a very personal moment that virtually everyone in Madison experiences. Over the past few months, many people who are homeless have taken to seeking donations by holding cardboard signs at concrete median strips at major intersections that say things like, “Homeless: Any Assistance Appreciated.”
Madison’s Mayor, Paul Soglin, who has repeatedly attempted to criminalize and demonize those who are homeless, has sought to make such solicitation, or even standing on those medians, illegal. Thus far, his efforts to criminalize this type of panhandling have been rebuffed by Madison’s City Council. Sadly, rather than trying to provide needed services and housing to Madison’s homeless, Mayor Soglin continues to try to criminalize harmless behavior such as sleeping outdoors and keeping their possessions outdoors, even while Madison fails to have a much needed homeless day resource center to store their possessions and provide employment, health care, and housing services.
Many of us are unsure what to do when confronted with a homeless panhandler. We may not want to confront the problem. We may worry that any contribution will be spent on alcohol or illicit drugs. We may be concerned that the panhandlers are not truly homeless and are just operating a scam.
Rabbi Laurie pointed out that Jewish teaching about tzedakah (charity) admonishes that it is better to help one impoverished beggar even if 99 out of 100 are not truly needy, than to fail to help any of those in need, rather than allow that single hungry person to starve. She described the Jewish attitude towards poverty as rooted in two key biblical concepts:
- b’tzelem elohim which means that humans are made in the image of god and therefore all humans must be treated as we would treat god; and
- achicha which means your brother and Jewish teaching admonishes us to treat everyone as if he was your brother (or sister).
As I have written before, when I have the time and opportunity, I will ask panhandlers if I can buy them a meal, and I have been able to do this a number of times. But, that is generally impossible in a moving traffic situation.
Rabbi Laurie realized that she simply did not want to explain the possible moral complexities of which homeless people may or may not deserve charity to her two young daughters who are often in the car with her while driving around Madison. So, she made a simple, helpful, and incredibly powerful decision. She now carries a box of granola bars in her car and offers them to anyone who is seeking assistance. While she acknowledges that her granola bars alone will not solve Madison’s growing homelessness problem, they will provide a little nutrition to those who receive them from her. Perhaps equally important, they will make each of them feel more human through Rabbi Laurie’s acknowledgement of their need.
As I was contemplating writing this post, it just so happened that as I was driving home from a meeting, my car was stopped at a light where someone who was homeless had a cardboard sign saying, “Homeless: any assistance appreciated.” Mindful of Rabbi’s Laurie’s sermon, I reached into my briefcase, pulled out a granola bar and offered it to the gentlemen, who gratefully accepted it.
On my next trip to the grocery store, I will buy extra granola bars and keep a stash in my car so I can continue doing my small part to help my brothers and sisters who are made in the image of god be a little less hungry and a little more dignified.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.