Beggars on the Streets of London

Jewish culture By Rabbi Jeremy Gordon 10th May 2018

Walking the streets, I saw a man kneeling on the pavement with a sign. The sign read, “Hungry, please help, God bless you”. He was right in the middle of where I was hurrying from and where I was hurrying to. It’s perhaps the greatest daily ethical challenge of living in London. The pull to walk by is so strong.

I posted a picture of the man I saw on Facebook and someone commented: “I never give money to people like this – they’ll spend it on alcohol, or drugs. It’s dangerous to feed someone’s addiction by giving them money – a bit like putting a stumbling block before a blind person.”

Well, perhaps. Leviticus 19:14 actually states, “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind, but fear your God. I am God.”

The first part of the verse makes sense – don’t put a stumbling block before a blind person, because they can’t see it. But why add this stuff about fearing God? Rashi suggests:

Because human beings don’t always know real intentions – whether we do things for someone’s advantage or disadvantage. So a person might be able to evade the responsibility for wrongdoing by saying, “I meant it for the best”. The Bible goes on to say, “But fear your God”. God knows our secret thoughts.

It’s certainly possible that giving a beggar money would cause them to stumble. But how do we know, really know, that walking by is doing the best for that person? Maybe there is something else going on in our kidneys and our heart that a bit of ol’ fashioned God-fearing could sort out.

Maybe the guy who takes our money and spends it on alcohol which he drinks at 10 o’clock in the morning isn’t an alcoholic. Maybe he’s just cold and miserable and wants a can of beer to numb out the memories of how wretched he’d felt during the night.

But maybe, you say to yourself, the guy isn’t really poor. Maybe he’s got nice clean clothes and a decent home to go back to, and he’s just ripping us off with his pious way of sitting there, preying on our soft, liberal tendencies.

A beggar once came to the city of Kovna, in the 1800s, and collected a large sum of money from the residents. The people of the town soon found out that he was an impostor; he really was a wealthy man. The city council wanted to make an ordinance prohibiting beggars from coming to Kovna to collect money. When the Rabbi of Kovna, Yitzchok Elchonon Specter, heard about the proposed ban, he came before the council.

He told them although he sympathized with them, he had an objection to raise. “Who deceived you? A needy person or a wealthy person? It was a wealthy person feigning poverty. If you want to make an ordinance, it should be to ban wealthy persons from collecting alms. But why make a ban against needy beggars?” (Ethics from Sinai, III)

Religion makes a case that actions have consequences – even actions we think no one else has spotted. We read in the Talmud (Shabbat 151b):

R. Hiyya advised his wife, “When a poor man comes to the door, give him food so that the same may be done to our children.” She cried, “You are cursing our kids suggesting they are going to become beggars!” But R. Hiyya replied, “There is a wheel which revolves in this world.”

It’s not easy to walk the streets of London believing that everyone is created in the image of the same God who created you and me – even the dirty, smelly and sometimes, frankly, even offensive beggars. It’s demanding in the most literal sense of the term. And there’s nowhere to hide.

So this is what happened when I encountered the man who was begging. Usually, I don’t stop. I don’t have good excuses – I just don’t stop. Sometimes I buy a copy of the Big Issue or I give some money to the Asylum Seeker Drop-in Centre. But usually, I don’t stop. When I saw this man, however, I stopped. He had given me an idea for a sermon, so I took a picture, ducking slightly out of the line of sight – partly to get a better shot, and partly because I wasn’t thinking of, you know, actually engaging with this particular person… I had places to go.

But in the moments between taking the photo and checking it to make sure I had something to wave around from the bimah on Shabbat, I decided to go over and give some money. In my mind, I was buying a sort of ethical copyright to allow me to build a sermon out of his poverty. His name is Mosi. He’s a Coptic Christian who left Egypt (that’s a nationality to conjure with, for a Jew). I told him I was a rabbi and asked if I could use a picture in my sermon. He said sure. “What would you have me say about what it’s like to be out here begging?” I asked. “It’s difficult,” he said. It’s certainly difficult.

We read in Pirkei Avot, our oldest collection of rabbinic teaching:

Rabbi Tarfon would say, the day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, but the reward is great and the Master of the House is calling. You don’t have to finish the work, but you aren’t free to desist from it.

Many of the textual responses cited are drawn from Arthur Kurzweil’s ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime?’ 

Rabbi Jeremy Gordon is the rabbi of New London Synagogue

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