By Syd Nestel and Val Hyman
Congregation Darchei Noam, Toronto, Canada
Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 67b:
Mar Ukba had a poor man in his neighbourhood into whose door-socket he used to throw four zuz every day. Once day the poor man thought: "I will go and see who does me this kindness [in order that I may thank him]. On that day Mar Ukba stayed late at the house of study and [went to place money in the poor man's door] with his wife. As soon as [the poor man] saw them moving the door-socket he went out after them. They fled from him and ran into a furnace from which the fire had just been swept. Mar Ukba's feet were burning and his wife said to him: Raise your feet and put them on mine. As he was upset [that his feet burned while his wife’s did not] she explained to him, "I am usually at home [when beggars come calling] and my benefactions are direct." And why [did they make such an effort to escape from the thank you of the poor man?] - Because Mar Zutra b. Tobiah said in the name of Rab …: Better had a man thrown himself into a fiery furnace than publicly put his neighbour to shame.”
Jeffrey Dekro in response to the Talmud from RRC's Guide to Jewish Practice: Tzedakah:
The importance of protecting anonymity is the dominant classical opinion. However, the famous story about Mar Ukba and his (nameless) wife preserves another tradition and a completely different mode of tzedakah conduct. When Mar and Mrs. Ukba flee and end up hiding in a still-hot communal oven..., he suffers a double shame, having to rely on a woman and having been "unmasked" while distributing histzedakah. In response to his amazed query as to why she did not suffer from the burning stove, Mrs. Ukba pointed out that she conducted her tzedakah activities face-to-face by making sandwiches for beggars at her kitchen door and, as a consequence, did not suffer red-hot shame at being recognized. So we learn that Mar Ukba's careful accounting and allocations [( we are told elsewhere that he was a very generous and meticulous giver of alms to the poor)] removed him from the opportunity to engage in a true meeting between provider and recipient, while Mrs. Ukba's direct, small-scale tzedakah procedures earned her both affection from the ones whom she benefited and honor from God, who gave her a capacity to endure great physical difficulty that her husband could not. ….”
For the past 12 years, the congregants at Darchei Noam have been one of about 30 congregations and churches in Toronto that run a rotating weekly 24-hour shelter for people who are homeless and hungry. Originally, we ran the program in collaboration with a Roman Catholic congregation, who had space for the program that we do not have. While we now have volunteers who are from both denominations, the volunteers are an ecumenical group that is called the First Interfaith Out of the Cold program in Toronto. Darchei Noam contributes about 60 volunteers. (About 50% of the total.)
Every Thursday night we serve a home cooked three-course meal to about 65 men and women, whom we call our guests. During the evening, guests can get foot care, see a public health nurse, watch a movie, paint, or play games such as scrabble. Or they can just talk to volunteers or other guests. There is a good used clothing boutique. About 60 guests stay overnight, sleeping on mats on the floor. In the morning, a crew of volunteers comes at 6:00 AM to cook breakfast and send the guests on their way with a nourishing packed lunch.
Mar Zutra's position suggests suggests that anonymous giving is the highest order of charity. Maimonides explicitly concurs. In his famous hierarchy of tzedakah the highest form of tzedakah is to help someone else to become self-sufficient and the second highest is give so that neither the person giving nor the receiver know each other's identity. Giving where both parties know who is who is ranked far down the list.
Our program is funded through donations, so there are many opportunities to provide donations anonymously. However, it is our contention that the value of our program is not only that we provide nourishment and shelter, but that because we serve our guests, treat them with respect, socialize and get to know individuals, we are providing a sense of well being and caring that they would not experience through anonymous giving.
We could simply collect donations, and donate them to a city run shelter. But then the guests, who spend many of their days in isolation walking the streets, would not have the opportunity to hug us when they see us. They would not be able to smile at our children doing community service for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or have an empathetic listening ear to the frustrations of their day. They would not have their blistered feet massaged and powdered and given clean dry socks to wear.
Anonymity may indeed be the best way to “give alms”. But tzedakah is not the only way of engaging in tikkun olam – repairing the world. We have found that simple human kindness – Gmilut Chasadim—is, at least, equally important. And we feel that it is not possible to be kind anonymously. It requires seeing and being seen. It requires a human touch.
Questions for Thought/Discussion: