July 27, 2009

Maimonides and the Ladder of Charitable Giving

With Bhima at the makeshift distribution center

"It’s our anniversary!" Bhima announced when we embraced at the distribution center outside her first home in Atlanta.

“One year ago, on July 26,” she and her family arrived in the “Big Peach” with thousands of others from United Nations-run refugee camps in southeastern Nepal. Bhima is a refugee from Bhutan, from where 100,000 people were driven out 18 years ago in an ethnic cleansing operation. Forced to live in the squalid camps, many are being resettled in Atlanta and elsewhere in the USA (and in a few other countries).

Bhima’s and her extended family's journey from homeland to here is a story of survival, courage, intelligence, pluck, resilience, and good fortune during nearly two decades' experiencing torture, terror, and deprivation. We first met at the recent Day of Interfaith Youth Service, a program of Emory University's Candler School of Theology. In her feedback on that experience of American pluralism in action, she wrote:

… I taught about my religion, Buddhism. ... Also, I shared about my years living in a refugee camp. They were very interested to learn about life in the camp. …
— Bhima Thapa-Magar, age 18

Yet our reunion was not to reminisce. Neither was it to meet her mother, aunt, and sister in Bhima's spotless home adorned with family photos and traditional art objects. Nor was it to taste the yummy (spicy!) dish she had prepared.

We met to join with other volunteers of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Bhutanese Refugee Support Group. The group, which is not affiliated with CDC, had brought to the newest comers in Bhima's apartment complex essential clothing, furniture, kitchen equipment, household items, toys, and back-to-school kits. And on this sweltering summer day, the refugees found new friends bearing goods, cheer, and hope.

Getting a toehold on the Ladder of Giving, and climbing up
The concept of giving anonymously without knowing the recipient can be traced back to ancient Israel. In his Ladder of Charitable Giving, where each of eight rungs, or levels of giving charity, represents a higher degree of virtue, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) writes of the eighth rung:

“Anticipate charity by preventing poverty; assist the reduced fellow man, either by a considerable gift or a sum of money or by teaching him a trade or by putting him in the way of business so that he may earn an honest livelihood and not be forced to the dreadful alternative of holding out his hand for charity. This is the highest step and summit of charity's golden ladder.”
— Maimonides, 12th-century Jewish philosopher, physician, rabbi

On the seventh rung of the Ladder, the anonymous donor expects nothing, not even recognition, and doesn’t know the recipient’s identity. At the lowest rung, the reluctant donor "gives with a frowning countenance."

The refugees joined volunteers to unload from a caravan of cars, vans, and trucks donations from people all over Atlanta. And the array elicited the refugees' initial wonder and amazement, then laughter and polite negotiations.

I watched Jonathan's dishes carried away with exquisite care, and blonde Stephanie's petite-size tops and slacks clothe smiling brown-skinned beauties. (Some local donors are "putting [the refugees] in the way of business so that [they] may earn an honest livelihood.")

Charity as justice
Tzedakah is a Hebrew word commonly translated as charity, though it is based on a root meaning justice (tzedek). In my tradition, tzedakah refers to the obligation (not an option) to give charity and to do philanthropic acts. And this teaching, which corresponds to similar ones among people in other faith communities and none, has been unleashing infinite rewards for thousands of years.

Get a toehold on the ladder, y'all, and keep climbing up.

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