In virtually every large city in the world today there are street corners and squares where the needy and destitute congregate. Holy cities in particular draw many who sense the opportunity present at the sacred sites where openhearted pilgrims flock. When I lived in Jerusalem we used to refer to the street people we encountered as “holy beggars,” for one never knew who among them might be a hidden tzaddik, or an embodiment of Elijah the prophet himself! I have fond memories of one such holy beggar who used to hang out in Jerusalem’s Geula district, where I lived. Upon receiving my meager offering of a spare shekel or two, he would proceed to shower me with abundant blessings for good fortune of every kind. During these exchanges, it was not always clear to me who had given what to whom, but I know that I often left the encounter feeling enriched, sensing that the distinction between giver and receiver had been blurred.
Today, living in Berkeley, California, I am faced on a daily basis with the dilemma of when and how much to give to the many homeless individuals who camp out on the streets where I work and play. Some of my friends argue that it is useless to give money directly to these beggars, as one never knows what they will do with the money, and that it is preferable to give generously to the local food banks and homeless shelters. Though I understand their argument, I still feel compelled to give. What I have come to realize is that giving to the needy has much more to do with me than with the recipients’ deservedness.
The Euphoria of Giving
I give because it hurts me on a soul level when I close my heart and walk by a person in need. And, as I have learned from recent research in the fields of immunology and neuroscience, when I give to someone in need, my immune system is fortified and my brain actually gets bathed in oxytocin, the chemical responsible for feelings of pleasure and euphoria! Furthermore, Judaism teaches that when I give freely and generously I am connecting with my divine nature, for the Holy One, by definition, is the Source that continuously gives and sustains all existence and does so regardless of our deservedness.
Giving, of course, is not limited to monetary gifts. When we give our time, energy, knowledge, and love to others, we also benefit from what has been called “giver’s high.” Reflecting on the great sense of reward that he felt as a teacher of Torah, Rabbi Akiva once said to his favorite disciple, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, “More than the calf wants to suck, the cow longs to suckle” (Talmud Pesachim 112a). This famous talmudic dictum can be applied more broadly to all relationships in which giving and receiving are central dynamics, for all giving increases the supply available to the giver, just as a cow or a mother’s milk increases as she nurses her offspring.
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