Monday, March 09, 2015

I Don't Like What I've Become

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.

The Wolf

*  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.


Mr. Cohen said...

Yalkut Meam Loez commentary on Kohelet [Ecclesiastes], chapter 11, verse 1, quoting Shevet Reuven ראובן שבט:

"If you help a poor person without investigating his deeds [literally, his sins], then you should be provided for abundantly by G_d, without regard to your sins."

CHRONOLOGY: Shevet Reuven is a commentary on the Biblical Book of Kohelet [Ecclesiastes], which seems to have been written around 1712 CE, by Rabbi Maimon ben Reuven Abu, in Mostaganem (a port city in Algeria) during the reign of Napoleon III.

Gil Student said...

You're a good man

tesyaa said...

I'll dissent. Of course, you should do your due diligence. For $2 it probably doesn't matter, but realistically you can't give to everyone, no questions asked.

jrs said...

Beyond the issue of dismay that "you've become suspicious"---and of course excepting cases of outright dire need---does it really behoove each & very Jew to help perpetuate a system that actively discourages personal ambition, industriousness, and plain old responsibility?
In some cases it enables, if not rewards, not taking charge of your own life in the most basic sense: supporting yourself & your family.

Wanting to devote as much time as possible to learning is one thing; raising a family (typically a large one) with absolutely no means, no safety net, and no plan for the future is extremely irresponsible, and also manifests a good bit of arrogance: the implicit expectation that everyone---your in-laws, your parents, Klal Yisroel at large---owes you a living. This attitude, too, is encouraged by the many who will tell you [condescendingly] that these people are the ones in whose z'chus we all survive.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

What turns me off is when they try to flatter. These same guys wouldn't notice me falling dead to the street in their home towns but when they need my money, suddenly I'm the second coming of Moshe Rabeinu.

Anonymous said...

I just saw on theyeshivaworld's site where you mentioned that you are a recent avel. I am sorry for your loss. May your deeds be a zechus for the neshoma of the niftar and may you and your family have a nechoma.
HaMakom yinachem eschem b'soch shar aveilei Tzion v'Yerushalayim.

Mr. Cohen said...

“All are asked to daven and say Tehillim for Tziporah bat Avigayil [Sassoon] and Avigayil bat Tziporah [Sassoon], who both jumped from second-floor widows to escape and were treated for burns and smoke inhalation.”

L said...

This blog post is the same regurgitated waaaa we've been subjected to for decades.

You don't like their way of life. We get it.

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DF said...

I don't bring my wallet into shul. (I heard RSZ Auerbach once said the same thing, incidentally.) I don't enjoy giving out money like this. When I've done it I don't feel like I've done something good, I feel like I'm just doing it to get it over with, and get the guy to go away. And I don't think I'm doing any good, because they are just going to keep on begging, whether you give or not. These are not people temporarily down on their luck who just need some help for the short term. So if I don't enjoy it, I don't feel I, really doing anything worthwhile, why should I give them? Out of same nebulous feeling of guilt? So I just give "the one handed shrug" to indicate truthfully that I have no money on me, and that's that.

The tzedakah I give is done quietly at home, when no one sees me. I sit down and look at the various institutions in town, institutions out of town, alma maters, etc, and then I write out checks. I feel like I'm doing my part, and I know I'm helping good causes. That's real tzedaka. The guys who come to shul or (with occasional exceptions) who knock on the door, are just preying on the community's misplaced sense of guilt and misguided generosity.

This is something we can learn from our gentile neighbors. There are signs up these days advising people not to give to beggars, that it doesn't help. There are better places to give money, the signs say, for those who want to do something good. They are 100% right. The people coming into shul are no different, literally no different, than the guys begging in the street. (Not all of them are winos, and really, who cares what they spend their money on? If they spent it on cigarettes its better?) It is not helping to give them, even if its just a buck. They rely on thousands of people all saying "its just a buck" to keep it going. Its a problem, and the solution ends when people begin to Just Say No.

Anonymous said...

DF, you're a cold hearted person. Perhaps logical, but cold hearted and wrong.

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