The Omaha City Council began a debate on Tuesday around the increased problem of “aggressive panhandling”. In rabbinical school I would often find myself walking the few blocks from my apartment to the seminary, behind one of my most beloved and well respected professors. I noticed that he always had change in his pockets and almost always would give to those individuals on the street who asked for money. What was peculiar was that those who simply shouted or asked were not the ones for whom got money, but those who approached him and put on their hand.
One day I finally got up the nerve to stop my teacher and ask about his practice. He explained first and foremost that those who live on the streets and ask for money are human beings, flesh and blood, just like you and me. They are fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers and they need to be seen, you need to look them in the eye and see them as another person. Seeing the person on the street as another human being was step 1, and then as any good rabbi he cited a text. Maimonides, the RAMBAM in the Mishneh Torah – Megillah 2:16 when talking about the giving of charity on Purim, he says that “one should give to whomever stretches out his hand.” And what does Maimonides say about those who give to the poor? “One who brings happiness to the hearts of these unfortunate individuals resembles the Divine Presence” [MT Megillah 2:17].
Yes, we need to patrol “aggressive panhandling” so that no one gets hurt…that should be clear. Yet, when those in our city are in such desperate need that they need to reach out their hand and ask for help, our response should be to open our eyes, our hearts and our wallets.