Recently, there was a story circulating about a gabbai tzedakah (an official in charge of funds for the poor) who approached a certain wealthy man and asked him for a donation. The man agreed to give a sizeable donation on condition that he would be told to whom his money would be given. The gabbai informed him that this was not possible. “All our tzedakah is distributed discreetly so as not to embarrass the recipients and we cannot reveal to anyone to whom the money is given,” he explained.
“I insist that you tell me, and I promise that it will go no further,” said the wealthy man, “but I must know. If you won’t tell me, I refuse to donate this very large sum of money.”
The gabbai, however, would not give in. “Even if it means that we lose this donation, we will not sacrifice the dignity of those who receive the charity under any circumstance,” he declared.
“In that case,” said the man, “please add me to your list of recipients. People think that I am rich but I am too embarrassed to admit that I have lost all my money and I am penniless. But I had to make sure that under no circumstances would anyone else know this, which is why I tested you beforehand with my request.”
The Rambam (Matnas Aniyim 10:7) famously lists the eight levels of charity. The second highest level (the highest being one who gives a gift or loan to a poor man that will enable him to set himself up in business and become self-supportive) is one who gives charity in a way that he will not know to whom the money goes, nor will the poor man who receives it know from whom it came. In order to accomplish this level of discreet giving, Jewish communities throughout the ages have established tzedakah organizations that act as the go-between, linking the donor and the recipient.
While this arrangement certainly does accomplish the goal of creating anonymity for both the donor and the recipient, there is a down-side. The system is susceptible to corruption by those officials who are appointed to administer the funds. Additionally, the possibility that the public might wrongly suspect an honest official is also of serious concern. How does the Halachah deal with these issues? A look at this week’s Parshah provides the beginning for this discussion.
Much of Parshas Pekudei is taken up with a listing given by Moshe Rabbeinu of all the donations that were given by the Jewish people for the construction of the Mishkan (the Holy Tabernacle) and what they were all used for. The Sages learn important halachos from this about how public officials and those who oversee charitable funds are expected to behave.
Trustees of tzedakah funds are obliged not only to carry out their duties faithfully and with the utmost integrity, but they are also enjoined to do everything they can to ensure that no one can be led to suspect them of any wrongdoing. In other words, caring about one’s reputation is a Torah value.
This imperative is derived by our Sages from the pasuk “And you shall be clean before G-d and before Israel.” (Bamidbar 32:22) The pasuk is telling us that it is not enough that Hashem knows that you are honest. You must make sure that the People of Israel are also certain of it.