With so many necessary appeals coming from so many worthy causes, agencies, and organizations, this time of year, I find myself reflecting on Maimonides’ Golden Ladder. Moses Ben Maimon was a Jewish Talmudist, physician, and philosopher of the Middle Ages, and his Golden Ladder helps us answer the basic questions about why, when, how, and how much to give of our time, treasure, and talent. If we press the matter a bit further, the Golden Ladder will help with the bigger questions as well where giving is not just writing a check but a way of life.
There are eight degrees or steps in the duty of charity, he writes. The first and lowest degree is to give, but with reluctance or regret. This is the gift of the hand, but not of the heart.
The second is to give cheerfully, but not proportionately to the distress of the sufferer.
The third is to give cheerfully and proportionately, but not until solicited.
The fourth is to give cheerfully, proportionately, and even unsolicited, but to put it in the poor man’s hand, thereby exciting in him the painful emotion of shame.
The fifth is to give charity in such a way that the distressed may receive the bounty and know their benefactor without their being known to him. Such was the conduct of some of our ancestors who used to tie up money in the corners of their cloaks so that the poor might take it unperceived.
The sixth, which rises still higher, is to know the objects of our bounty but remain unknown to them. Such was the conduct of those of our ancestors who used to convey their charitable gifts into poor people’s dwellings, taking care that their own persons and names should remain unknown.
The seventh is still more meritorious, namely, to bestow charity in such a way that the benefactor may not know the relieved persons, nor they the name of their benefactors, as was done by our charitable forefathers, during the existence of the Temple. For there was in that holy building a place called the Chamber of the Silent wherein the good deposited secretly whatever their generous hearts suggested, and from which the poor were maintained with equal secrecy.
Lastly, the eighth, and the most meritorious of all is to anticipate charity, by preventing poverty, namely, to assist the reduced fellowman either by a considerable gift, or a loan 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 the summit of charity’s golden ladder.
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Anticipating charity by preventing poverty … the ultimate answer to why, when, how, and how much to give.