03/06/2012 03:38 pm ET Updated May 06, 2012

Charity and Compassion: A Purim Lesson in Giving

Mar Ukba was a renowned scholar. Every day, on his way home from the Beit Midrash, he would slip four zuzim under the door of a poor man who lived in the neighborhood. One day, the poor man thought, "I will go and see who is being so gracious to me." On that very day, it happened that Mar Ukba was late in returning from the Beit Midrash, and his wife came by to see what was keeping him. On the way home, Mar Ukba, accompanied by his wife, stopped by the poor man's house, as usual, and stooped to slip the zuzim under the door. At that moment, the poor man opened the door to greet them. Mar Ukba and his wife fled, and hid in an oven from which the coals had just been swept. Mar Ukba's feet were burning, but his wife said: lift your feet and put them on mine. Mar Ukba became upset [because his wife was clearly the recipient of a miracle and he was not]. But his wife said to him: [I have merited this miracle] because I am usually at home, and my gifts are immediate and direct [because I give directly to those who come to the door while you give money in a more indirect way]. (BT Ketubot 67b)

In this Talmudic story, we are presented with two models of giving. Mar Ukba gives anonymously. Mar Ukba's anonymous wife gives face-to-face. The former's giving appears to be motivated by a fear of the "shame of poverty," that is, the humiliation of depending on someone else for one's individual needs. Mrs. Ukba's charity is empathetic and person-specific; she interacts with those who come to her door and gives them what they need.

In order to make sure that Mar Ubva can remain an incognito benefactor, they eventually find themselves in a furnace. Mar Ukba's feet begin to burn while Mrs. Ukba becomes worthy of divine protection. This suggests a flaw in Mar Ukba's anonymous giving. From this short tale, let us try to understand Mar Ukba's mistake.

Mar Ukba's distance from those he gives charity to leaves him blind to the emotional registers of the poor. Anonymous benefactors like Mar Ukba and anonymous giving often lead to rigid, and at times ineffectual, solutions to poverty. Four zuz (the amount of Mar Ukba's charity) does not respond to the particularity of the recipient. The anonymity of money suggests detachment and perhaps a degree of apathy; as if to say, take your money, but I have no need of creating a relationship with you; I am not responding to your needs at all. Perhaps we can even go further: it is not only Mar Ukba's concern for shaming the poor that keeps his giving anonymous. Rather, it is Mar Ukba himself who feels this shame, and it is that feeling which keeps him from building relationships with those in need.

One of the major mitzvot of Purim is matanot le'evyonim -- giving gifts to the poor. Each person is obligated to contribute the equivalent of two meals to someone in need. The story of Mar Ukba and his wife suggests that we must emphasize, if not sympathize, with those in need (MT Hil. Megillah ve-Chanukah 2:16). Like Mar Ukba's wife, we must respond to poverty through solidarity, even identification, as well as understanding and kindheartedness, but never shame. It suggests that giving anonymously and the anonymity of money are only an initial level of giving but are not ideal ways of giving assistance. It instructs us that tzedakah (charity) and matanot le'evyoniom should be performed in a personal, sincere and face-to-face manner. By acting in the manner of Mar Ukba's wife we can limit suffering, forge connections between the rich and the poor and help "build a world of compassion" (Olam Chesed Yibaneh).

Next Steps
  • There are tens of organizations that we can donate to, but instead of giving $18, why not buy $18-worth of food and give them to a person in need?
  • Instead of giving a dollar or some change to a homeless man or woman, try to keep granola bars in your purse or bag and share them with people in need.
  • Go one step further: ask the recipient of your charity their name and a question about themselves.
  • Volunteer at a food bank, soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Better yet, open a homeless shelter at your synagogue.

This column is a part of 'Ve-Nahafoch Hu: Making Your Way Through an Upside-Down World,' a social justice Purim Supplement published by Uri L'Tzedek. Ve-Nahafoch Hu ("and the opposite occurred," Esther 9:1) is when the Jews of Shushan were saved at the last moment, resulting in a day of celebrations and expressions of gratitude. But Purim is not only a day of feasting and merrymaking; it is so much more. The Book of Esther as well as its mitzvot (commandments) and minhagim (customs) touch on many of the compelling issues of our time including the death penalty, consumerism, theories of ethics and responsibility, alcoholism, poverty and economic injustice, structures of political organization, and taxes. The conversations are brought together in Ve-Nahafoch Hu, which can be downloaded here.