And How Are You Today? // An unreturned greeting is a theft; an offered one, a gift

How do you say ‘the dog died’ in Yiddish?” asked the African American panhandler to whom I had given a quarter when he accosted me in lower Manhattan. It was many years ago, shortly after my family and I moved to New York. A bit taken aback by the unexpected quiz, I responded “Der hunt hut geshtorben.”
“No,” he insisted. “A mentch shtarbt. A hunt peigert.” He was right, of course.
This New York, I thought, is an interesting place.
I never found out how my interlocutor knew Yiddish so well, but, over the ensuing years, I have met many, if less interesting, seekers of alms.
When I first began working in “the city,” as an out-of-towner unaccustomed to street beggars, I made a point of giving a coin or two to each of the bedraggled men on my route who shook a cup of coins or asked passers-by for a donation. Chazal, after all, teach us to provide tzedakah to all (Gittin 61a).
Rightly or wrongly, though, I eventually came to stop that practice. There were the times when, after my small donation to an indigent person, I was besieged by theretofore hidden others who, having witnessed my largess, suddenly and magically appeared to stake their own claims. I would have had to carry a bag of quarters each day. And I came to realize, too, that there are an abundance of agencies and charities that provide food and shelter for the homeless. And I wondered what “extras” the coins and bills in the cups would end up purchasing.
And so, I joined the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers who go about their business without acknowledging the sound of shaken coins or the repeated mantras of “Any spare change?” But I felt (and feel) bad. I was still ignoring human beings. That’s not something a descendant of Avraham Avinu should be able to do nonchalantly. True, the solicitors don’t seem to mind being ignored by so many, seemingly happy with the “business” they conduct with tourists. But still.
For a long time, I was especially troubled by one man, in his 60s or 70s, who sat on the sidewalk, asking passersby for change. “Rabbi!” he called out to me, once. “Got anything for me?”
In Manhattan, stopping short while walking briskly can cause the pedestrian version of a pile-up. Luckily, though, there wasn’t much foot traffic behind me when I stopped to smile at the fellow and tell him that I don’t generally carry cash (which by then was true), but that I wished him a wonderful day.
I can tell a sincere smile from a contrived one, and his was the real thing. Along with the smile came, without a hint of cynicism, a “thank you.”
That’s become my response to panhandlers ever since: Acknowledge their humanity. Ask them how they’re doing today.
The Gemara (Brachos 6b) quotes Rav Chalbo in the name of Rav Huna as saying: “Anyone who is greeted and does not return the greeting is called a thief.” His source is a pasuk in Yeshayahu (3:14): “The theft of the poor man is in your house.” Rashi explains that a poor person has no possessions to steal, and so the thievery referred to is the “stealing” of a greeting owed him, of which he was deprived.
Presumably, if an unreturned greeting is a theft, an offered one is the payment of a debt. Or, at least, a gift. The indigent “collectors” on the street, at least from the responses of most of them, certainly seem to consider it so.
Greeting every person we pass throughout the day might seem eccentric. In some cases, an interaction might even be unwise or inappropriate. But in so many others, we do well to not allow the impersonal nature of modern life to make us forget the testimony about Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai (Brachos 17a) that no one ever beat him to a greeting, as he was always first to offer one, “even [to] a non-Jew in the marketplace.”
I imagine Lower Manhattan qualifies as a marketplace.

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