As I'm finishing up Shacharis, the two dollar bills, tired and worn from circulation lay on the table in front of me.
I put those bills there before davening started. It's my daily "tzedaka fund." When people come around during or after davening to collect, I will usually give them one of the dollars. When they are gone, then that's all I give for that session of davening. Sometimes there might be only a single dollar, sometimes as many as four or five. It depends on how much financial pressure I'm feeling lately and how many bills of each denomination I have in my pocket. Today it's two singles.
One thing that I like about this shul is that there is usually very little collecting during davening itself. Yes, they pass around the pushka for the shul during the Repetition of the Amidah, but very few actual beggars. They usually wait until the end of davening.
Towards the end of davening (usually right before Aleinu), one of them will be allowed to make an thirty or sixty second "elevator pitch" to the congregation before they actually go from person to person. Some of them have supporting documentation, some don't. Sometimes it's overwhelming medical bills. Other times it's a plea to support orphans. Sometimes it's just a person who is down on his luck. To me, it doesn't matter too much -- I don't check the documentation too closely (or, often, at all). If they're actually cheating me, it's usually only going to be a buck anyway. I'd rather err on the side of mercy.
This morning, however, was different. This morning's tzedaka collector made me think twice about even giving the buck.
The man made his pitch in Yiddish, which I don't fully understand. Yet, I was able to make out enough of it to understand that he was from Israel and that he was collecting money for his daughter's wedding. He has six daughters, he told us -- presumably this was the first and he would need more funds further down the line.
When he mentioned needing money for a wedding, I began to wonder what, exactly, he needed it for. Did he need it for the actual expenses of the wedding (food, a dress and so on), or was it because he had to promise support to his future son in law or buy them an apartment or what not? If the former, I would give with a full heart? Whose heart would not melt when presented with a story of a young woman who wants to get married but lacks the funds for even a modest wedding?* If the latter, however, well that's a different story.
Like many families, we're under a bit of a financial crunch at the moment. Nothing so serious that we can't keep a roof over our heads or food on the table, but still, money is tight. If one of my kids were to get married tomorrow, I would have a great deal of trouble coming up with the money for the wedding. I certainly wouldn't be promising them a house or apartment or that I would support them in total for years on end. And it's not because I wouldn't want to help them out where I can, but just because, at the current moment, I can't. And if I can't do so for my own kids, why should I be contributing to someone else who is doing so for their kids? Why should I spend my money to someone who made promises he couldn't possibly keep?
In my mind, I imagined the conversation I would have with him. I'd ask him about the man his daughter was going to marry. Was he a Ben Torah? What were his plans for the future? How much did he cost?
And, as those thoughts went through my head, I had the contradictory feeling of being both disgusted by them and justified in them. I was disgusted that I would even think of asking such questions -- aside from the last question being incredibly crass, it's truly none of my business, even if he's asking for my money. But yet, the objections of the previous paragraph keep coming back to my head. Why should I be part of buying an apartment for his future son-in-law if I'm having under pressure meeting the day-to-day expenses for my own kids?
Part of the problem, I suppose, comes from my opposition to the way shidduchim are done in some Chareidi circles, where, in many cases, you have to literally buy a son-in-law for your daughter. Yes, the dowry is an old idea, but, from a practical, everyday point of view, it's a concept that is totally alien to me. I simply can't imagine not marrying a perfectly suitable girl simply because she can't come up with a down-payment, and, because I can't wrap my head around the concept, I have trouble empathizing with someone who is actually in that situation.
But is that the situation here? Or is it simply the case of a poor person who needs funds for the most basic and simplest of weddings? I don't know. I'm certainly not going to ask.
In the end, I handed over the bills to him. As I said, I tend to err on the side of giving rather than not giving. But I find myself troubled -- not by the question of whether or not to give, but by my reaction to it. I don't like that I've become suspicious of such requests and nosy about details that I have no right to inquire about. I don't like the idea that I'm judging others as to whether or not they're worthy of my charity. I don't like the fact that I have to even question this in my mind. I'd rather just give with a full heart.
* Yes, I know that, technically, to get married, you don't really need all that much beyond a ring and a rabbi -- but I believe that every bride deserves at least a modest wedding.