The widespread practice of giving ‘Shaliach Mitzvah Gelt’ is downright baffling. Ostensibly, it’s predicated upon the Talmudic principle (BT Pesachim 8a), ‘Shluchei Mitzvah Einan Nizokin’ – agents of a mitzvah are not damaged. In other words, the Talmud maintains that while one is on the way to perform (or from performing) a mitzvah, they are protected. Therefore, by giving someone a bit of cash and asking them to give it to a pauper in the destination, the traveler becomes an agent for the delivery of this tzedaka money, and therefore protected.
Without getting into a discussion of practical magic (and this is a textbook case of talismanic magic), let’s just say that I’m curious how the Rambam learns that Gemara. Nevertheless, if it inspires tzedakah, it’s a good thing. I’m sure the destitute are more than pleased with this custom, whether or not they think that the deliverer is magically protected.
My problem is with the fact that the custom is sometimes misplaced, especially when the purpose of the journey is itself a mitzvah. For example, I’m making aliyah in three weeks. Several people have offered Shaliach Mitzvah Gelt. I’ve declined each time, owning to the fact that making aliyah is itself a mitzvah (in this past week’s Parsha, no less). If I’d be traveling to Kuala Lumpur on business, then perhaps the gelt would come in handy. But for some reason it’s much more common to give the gelt to those traveling to Israel, i.e., those who are least likely to need it (remember, hundred, if not thousands, travel to Israel to study Torah, to volunteer, or to otherwise engage in full-time mitzvah performance).
It’s also amusing that many ask, when giving the money, to give it to someone soliciting down at the Kotel. Many of them are known charlatans, and it’s actually illegal to solicit there. So, by its own logic, giving away money at the kotel might not really be a mitzvah (aliyah, according to minimalist positions, is at least a mitzvah kiyumis), and hence wouldn’t protect its bearer.
It would make sense, prima facie, for this to work in the other direction. Perhaps those traveling to America should be sent with tzedakah, but it doesn’t really make much economic sense. Maybe Americans should just give money to those journeying to Israel, no strings attached. I promise, we’ll put it to good use.