Rabbi Yona said: “Happy is one who gives to the poor” is not written here, but rather “Happy is he who considers the poor” (Psalms 41:2) is written. This indicates that one must consider his actions carefully and act wisely in giving charity. This refers to one who scrutinizes the mitzvah of charity and performs it with consideration.
This principle, that charitable giving should preserve the dignity of the recipient, echoes through Jewish tradition and texts. Perhaps most famously, Maimonides (eight levels of tzedakah) regards anonymous giving and receiving as particularly commendable because this dual anonymity — both giver and receiver are unknown to one another — protects the dignity of the recipient.
Protecting the dignity of others is in fact a theme throughout rabbinic literature. But sometimes the means to achieving it are complicated, as the following story illustrates:
Rabbi Hoshaya the Great was the master (i.e. teacher) of the son of a certain blind man and was accustomed to eat with the blind man every day. Once Rabbi Hoshaya had guests, and he did not invite the blind man to eat with him. In the evening, Rabbi Hoshaya went up to visit the blind man and said to him: “I request that my master not be angry with me, as I had guests today. I therefore said to myself that I will not invite you today, so as not to demean my master’s dignity. For this reason, I did not eat with my master today.”
Commentaries explain that the blind man often dropped food on himself and Rabbi Hoshaya wished to spare him the embarrassment of doing so in front of other guests. However good Rabbi Hoshaya’s intentions, I read this and cringe. Citing the blind man’s dignity as a basis for excluding him from the meal flies in the face of contemporary sensibilities of inclusion and equity. It’s difficult to accept the reasoning: I thought other people might make fun of you, so I decided not to invite you at all. He even seems to know it, which is why he approaches the blind man with repeated entreaties of “my master” and offers something between an excuse and a non-apology.
Which makes the blind man’s response surprising:
The blind man said to him: Since you appeased one who is seen but does not see, the Holy One, who sees but is not seen, should accept your appeasement.
The blind man is quite content with Rabbi Hoshaya’s actions and offers him an eloquent blessing!
If we take the blind man at his word and accept the principle that marginalized people themselves get to decide what constitutes their dignity, perhaps then it is wrong of us to find Rabbi Hoshaya’s approach so lacking. Perhaps we should not judge based on contemporary standards for inclusion. And to his credit, Rabbi Hoshaya broaches the subject directly with the blind man himself (after the fact, but still). And yet, I am still profoundly uncomfortable with Rabbi Hoshaya’s behavior, and it’s hard to see how he merits the beautiful praise that the blind man bestows.
As we reach toward greater inclusion, always keeping in view that each person is created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, perhaps what we can take from this story is a reminder that we ourselves can and should do better, in part through willingness to have difficult conversations and act in ways we may find challenging so that we can be sure we are respecting the dignity of others.
Read all of Shekalim 15 on Sefaria.