A better channel for random generosity

In tough economy, there are plenty who can use our help

October 31, 2011|Dan Rodricks

Reader reaction to last Thursday's column — about my response to an anonymous driver paying my $5 toll at the Perryville booths on Interstate 95 — ran from, "Dan, you cynic, that was a nice thing for someone to do; I hope the generous stranger didn't read your ungrateful column," to, "Dude, that happened to me once; it's pretty weird."

Can I just say something? (Of course I can; it's my column.)

To each his own when it comes to executing random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty. This is very personal stuff. But, since we have brains — and plenty of time to think during long drives on congested highways — we are allowed to ask a few questions, such as:

If someone gives five bucks to a stranger who doesn't need it, is that a charitable act or a random and meaningless one?

Does generosity always have to be directed to someone in need, or do we earn good-person credits by making donations to anyone, even millionaires?

Look, there's no harm done. I was surprised and grateful that someone in a car ahead of me decided to pay my toll. But I wonder what the point of this drive-through generosity was. It seems to me that it misses the mark. I checked and found support in Judaic law.

"Tzedakah" is the obligation to perform charity, and within tzedakah there are eight levels of giving. The highest is giving, or loaning, funds in a way that would help a person get out of poverty — by starting a business, or perhaps becoming a partner with you in one.

The second highest form is described in "The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money," by Meir Tamari:

"The benefactor has no knowledge of the recipient and the latter has no knowledge of the individual source of charity — matan b'seter ('giving in secret'). This is practicing the mitzvah of charity for the sake of the mitzvah (since the benefactor has no benefit, social or egoistical)."

That sounds like what happened at the I-95 toll booth — until you get to this part: "Such charity is like the courtyard in the ancient Temple where the righteous used to place their donations secretly and the poor would benefit from them in secret."

So it's what happens when you put a few bucks in the poor box: You don't know who, specifically, will benefit, but you trust that you will be helping someone in need.

Which gets back to my point about "paying it forward" at the toll booth. Unless you know that the family in the car behind you really needs the five bucks, then you're wiser to go to the trouble of finding someone who actually can use some help. And there are plenty of those these days.

That's how I see it. Others seem to be taken with such acts on their face. "Thinking about it in a little less jaded and a more grateful way might make you a little happier," wrote a reader named Mary.

Reader Tami Metz, on the other hand, seemed to get my point and offered a story about an act of direct charity she witnessed about 10 years ago while sitting in traffic in South Baltimore:

"It was freezing and windy. I was at a stoplight and the fourth car in line. The first two cars were late model luxury cars. The third car in line was an old, rusting sedan with an older male driver. On the corner was a young man with his two children. The kids were bundled up against the cold, and the dad had his arms around them. The dad had on a shirt and a heavier shirt on top, but he was shaking with cold, and his hands and face were bright red. As he huddled with those kids, waiting for the bus, it was apparent he was freezing. The light changed and the first two cars drove off. The man in the third car got out, walked up to the dad and gave him his heavy winter coat and his gloves. It was obvious they did not know each other and the young man protested briefly, but the two shook hands, the clothing was exchanged, and the man returned to his car and drove off."

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR 88.1 FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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