I understood with greater clarity why the Torah cautions us to treat the pauper with dignity
I do not often travel on the excellent Jerusalem light-rail system, which is why, when I had to use it recently, I did not quite know how to work the automatic ticket machine.
A high school girl was standing near the machine, so I asked her if she could help me with the ticket. She smiled graciously, reached into her purse, and began to hand me some coins.
“No,” I said, “I have the money. I just don’t know how to use the dispenser.”
Clearly, she had assumed I was asking for a handout, that I was a beggar asking her to give me money for a ticket. She smiled again, took my coins and easily obtained the ticket for me. End of story?
No, not really the end. I have been thinking about that incident ever since it happened.
Was I embarrassed that she thought I was a beggar? For a fleeting instant, I did feel a trace of the embarrassment that a beggar must feel when he asks for a handout. That lasted only a second — the girl was very pleasant and thoughtful — but that fraction of time was like the click of a camera shutter. It was enough to offer me a glimpse of what a self-respecting person must feel when he has no choice but to ask for charity. Perhaps the daily street beggars have become hardened to this, but the person who genuinely has to beg in order to provide food for his table surely must experienc a tinge of personal diminution. For the first time in my life, and just for an evanescent instant, I could put myself into the shoes of the beggar. Those well-known phrases, which we mumble so casually in our davening, will now have new meaning: G-d is the “ozer dalim — He Who helps the poor…” “K’dalim dafaknu delasecha — like paupers do we knock on Thy door…” And I will henceforth look at beggars differently, especially because, as the Sages declare in Vayikra Rabbah 34:10, when a pauper comes to your door, “the Holy One, Blessed be He, stands at the pauper’s side.”
And then I understood with greater clarity why the Torah cautions us to treat the pauper with dignity and to uphold his self-respect. He is suffering enough by coming to you for a handout. He is a fellow creature of G-d; treat him as such. Try to minimize the sense of shame he must feel at this moment. The daily Bircas Hamazon alludes to the embarrassment of asking for a handout. We pray always to be at the giving end, not at the receiving end, and that the only gift we desire is that which emanates from G-d, “shelo nevosh v’lo nikalem l’olam va’ed — so that we may never ever be embarrassed or humiliated.”
The ability to put oneself into another person’s place is the key to a civilized society. Teacher and student, wife and husband, liberal and conservative, rich man and pauper — the key to the resolution of differences and misunderstandings between people is precisely this ability to see things from the perspective of the other. This is the mindset of successful negotiators, and of generals and tacticians. How insightful of the Sages in Avos II:4: “Al tadin es chavercha ad shetagia limekomo — Do not pass judgment on anyone until you put yourself in his place.”
That young lady at the ticket dispenser did not give me any monetary tzedakah, but for a transient instant she did give me something even more valuable: the opportunity to stand in the shoes of someone else.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 938)
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