On Generosity and Giving

by Rabbi Lisa Goldstein

This morning a man came down the crowded subway, collecting money for the homeless. I’ve seen him before; this is part of his regular beat. He usually ends his pitch by reminding the passengers that homelessness doesn’t only happen to “others.” A lost job, a house fire, a death in the family can be enough to tip the balance. He is pretty persuasive and more people give to him than to some of the other people asking for money in the New York subway.

I wonder what it is about this man that makes him such an effective tzedakah collector. Is it because, unlike other panhandlers, he is asking on behalf of other people? Or is it because he taps in to the underlying worry inside many subway passengers: could I become homeless?

I suspect that the latter reason is more likely. We all know that fear is a strong motivating factor for many kinds of actions. It is not surprising that the man on the subway addressed the nervousness among the passengers. What is surprising – and lovely – is that he helped them turn that anxiety into generosity.

But part of me wondered: How much would he collect if he appealed to generosity born of a sense of abundance instead of a sense of scarcity? What if he asked people to consider their blessings, the daily miracles that allowed them to leave their apartments with coats and shoes, get on the subway and have a place to go? What if he asked them to give because of a full heart of gratitude?

To be honest, I think that approach would fall flat. We (perhaps especially in New York) are too cynical. But there is a challenge implicit in this question with significant implications. We have seen through the last years how scarcity leads to more scarcity. Can we reverse that downward spiral by putting more gratitude and generosity back into the system?

This is important because generosity is not limited to money. When we feel the pressure of not having enough time, attention, creativity or acceptance, it is harder to extend ourselves to others. In fact, this is one of the most interesting side effects of a regular tzedakah practice. As we train ourselves to be more generous with our money, we may also become more adept at giving in other areas.

Obviously, not everyone does have enough. But as Mar Zutra (whose name tellingly means the small or young master) teaches, “Even a poor person who subsists on tzedakah must give tzedakah. (Talmud, Gittin 7b)” Why is that? Perhaps it is because acting as if we have enough, even for a moment, helps so transform our world that we may no longer have to evoke anxiety to get people to give.

Rabbi Lisa Goldstein is the Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. She was a Group Leader for AJWS, co-leading six service learning experiences, and is interested in bringing together justice work and contemplative practices.

Photo courtesy of TheDanLevy.

AJWS has launched Where Do You Give? – a conversation about where, why and to whom American Jews donate money. This is cross-posted from their blog.