Katrina, The State and I (Ideas #71)

The most recent tragedy in the United States has engendered many different feelings and thoughts in all of us. The shocking pictures of human suffering and death in the world's most advanced country give us pause as we try to fathom this great disaster.

Central in the American press is the debate as to whether the US government has done enough to alleviate suffering and tragedy in the effected parts of the country. Indeed, this goes hand-in-hand with the larger issue of the modern welfare-state's responsibility to help the nation's needy in general.

While rare historically, aid to the poor and needy has become an accepted role of any modern government today. On the whole, this is a progressive and welcome development in human history: The state has the organizational and coercive powers to transfer resources on a large enough scale to take care of the poor and needy in unprecedented ways. As with many other areas of progress, however, the communalization of charity does not come without any social cost.

Before the modern welfare state took on the responsibility of helping the poor, all decent religions had made this the responsibility of the individual. Thus, all devout individuals took on such a task as part of their fealty to G-d. No doubt, religiously motivated giving continues. Still, since the state has taken on the brunt of the work, it is only natural that most individuals, religious or not, feel less of a personal need to help the poor.

Today, even private non-governmental giving to the poor is largely done through large organizations that make all giving anonymous. It is true that anonymous giving is viewed in a positive light by our sages (Baba Batra 10b). Nonetheless, giving through large organizations has gone beyond the point of being anonymous act. Like welfare that comes from our giving taxes, it has often become an unconscious act we easily come to view such gifts as just other bills to be paid the same way as we pay for our utilities or rent.

The end result is that the same mechanism that has allowed us to become more effectively charitable societies is the same mechanism that has made us less charitable individuals. That is because it is in the personal act of giving to another human being that we actually become charitable individuals. When we observe and internalize someone else's suffering to the point of acting upon it, this impacts on who we are. From a theological perspective, this is one of the main reasons for poverty in the world: to allow us to transcend self by acting to help others in their needs. Indeed, this self-transformative function of giving charity is the reason for the famous doctrine that it is better to divide a large gift into one thousand small gifts for a thousand different people, rather than give it all to one person. Though possibly creating less net social benefit, the impact on the giver is maximized. Presumably, the desired result is that the impulse to give becomes an internalized and immediate response whenever we become aware of someone else's need.

I would add that there would be more impact on the giver's sense of transcendent compassion if charity is given in response to distinct cases of poverty as opposed to a more theoretical knowledge of poverty. In other words, we all know that poverty exists and that we are commanded to respond to it by giving of our own funds to help those in need. Responding on such a level may fulfill the commandment, but falls short of maximizing its impact on our own consciousness. Our giving is likely to have greater impact on us when we are intimately familiar with its discreet purpose.

Alongside the lack of immediacy that is characteristic of modern giving, our media-fed awareness of global suffering has, rather than sensitizing us to human suffering, numbed us by the sheer proportions of suffering that we see in the global community. We feel helpless to make any significant impact to ameliorate the situation, except to turn to our government as the body that is able to make a difference. On some level, the interconnectedness of the global community has left us with no community at all. In true communities, the wealthy personally know the poor and visa-versa. Thus, suffering is localized to the point that one feels that he can make a difference. It is in such a context that a person is likely to truly internalize another's suffering.

Are we to resign ourselves to the inevitable desensitization to suffering brought about by the various features of modern society outlined above? Certainly, that would be the course of least resistance, and we could still claim that from a technical point of view we are not remiss in keeping the commandments. This claim notwithstanding, we would do well to put some effort into making charity a more personal endeavor.

I don't know how practical it is for most of us to travel to some of the refugee centers in the Southeastern United States (though it may be uncomfortable to remind ourselves that we have likely found it practical to travel even further on our vacations). Be that as it may, most of us do have easier access to suffering and poverty in the poorer neighborhoods of our cities, in old age homes and in orphanages. Perhaps more of us need to visit these places to have a more immediate sense of suffering and what it is that we are doing with our giving. This is only one possible small idea concerning how to make charity a more personal enterprise in our society. Regardless of how we are to do it, it is most critical that we find ways of engaging in this precept in a way that it can once more engage us.