Maimonides famously wrote that there are eight levels of tzedakah – charity. The highest form of giving is in such a way that you prevent someone from becoming impoverished in the first place (giving someone employment, an interest free loan, teaching a man to fish, etc.). The next to greatest form of charity is giving tzedakah anonymously to an unknown recipient (usually via a trusted intermediary organization or person).
Let’s put that on hold for a moment.
Since returning from Israel, I have been trying to give up coffee. I was at the point where I could drink several large cups a day and still not feel a jolt. It was time to give it up. Now I’m down to about one cup a week. (Unfortunately, it’s hard to go cold turkey when your sleep schedule involves waking at 5:45 and going to bed around 1:30 or 2:00.) So I’m saving money, not buying beans to make coffee at home, not buying a couple coffees from cafés.
Before going to Israel, my tzedakah giving was routine. Each Friday, just before turning off my computer for Shabbos, I would make a donation online. I tried to vary the donations, rotating through a list of organizations that had missions I believed in. I bought bees and goats, sponsored programs for at-risk youth, supported film festivals… Which was only nominally anonymous. The youth didn’t know who funded their programs, but the fund development staff did.
Now, my practice is a little different. On my way to buying my weekly coffee, I check in with someone I see on the street, ask if s/he would like a coffee too. If they ask for a different drink, I’m happy to fulfill that request too. If they ask for something a little fancier, or specify the milk/sugar, I’m down with that too. I go, get our coffees, and return. We usually end up having a chat – talking about the weather, the drink, the neighbourhood, people watching… it doesn’t really matter what we talk about. But we talk. I sit with them on the church’s front steps, on a park bench, in the middle of Columbus Cirlce, and we talk. The transaction is more than a simple gift of a drink, it’s a personal interaction.
And that leads me to thinking about how Maimonides would judge this exchange. It’s far from anonymous – it’s personal and lingering. I’ve been thanked, told that it’s made their day (one person said it made his month). And it’s not the charity that they’re thanking me for – it’s the conversation, being treated as an equal, having their eye contact met for more than a fleeting second. It’s not a grand gesture, but it’s an honest one.
Is this, then, an inferior way of giving?