It happened within three minutes of answering the doorbell on a recent Friday afternoon. Pulling my fingers out of a bowl of kneidlach batter that I’m dropping into my boiling soup, I run to the door to find two meshulachim, “emissaries” from eretz Yisroel, smiling benignly.
In my ears echo the sounds of a household in chaotic pre-Shabbos countdown — vacuum wailing, toilet bowls being brushed and flushed, cats howling as I step on their tails, daughter asking, “Did I do my chores yet?”
This chorus mixes with the usual unresolved tensions of the waning week as I rush to greet the guys who, I know, will expect me, as a matter of Jewish good citizenship, to drop everything, listen to their tales, and write each a check with a saiver panim yafos (pleasant demeanor) worthy of the patriarch, Shammai.
But not this week!
As Tweedledum enters the hallway, he launches a non-stop monologue about the depth of his need, the mystical bonds of brotherhood that connected his soul to mine from the moment of Sinai, and the blessings he will call upon my head, and the heads of my children, in return for my help in reaching a sum sufficient to stage his upcoming wedding, af a gitte shu’a (in a propitious time), b’ezras Hashem!”
Obediently, I bend down to write my check, hoping only to be spared some ill-conceived d’var Torah in yeshivish so that I can return to my matzoh balls and advance to the cement-like deposit of kitty litter awaiting Aviva and me in the basement.
And then it happened.
Peeking over my shoulder as I enter the figure $10.00 on my check, my soulmate interjects: “Ulai ta’aseh maamatz?” — Can you maybe make an effort? — “I have a lot of expenses — flowers, a photographer, and lots of relatives, kinaynhora, I’m flying in from chutz la’aretz!”
So I lost it.
Thinking of the many months gone by since I’d had the cash to put aside in Aviva’s college knippl (her and her sister’s weddings, no doubt, will be funded by Visa), I roared out: “Maybe you can fire the photographer? And where do you get the airfare, meal money, and lost work time to wander the States hitting up people like me to fund your lifestyle? Maybe you can give me a cut? Yer outahere!”
While I sought a large bludgeon, Dum and Dee were out the door, falling over each other as they scrambled down the street, coats flapping, my X-rated maledictions trailing after them in the erev Shabbos ethers. Like all Boomer ba’alei teshuvah, my spontaneous Anglo-Saxon maledictions surpass in fluency my formulaic Hebrew benedictions.
Time for a little perspective. Most meshulachim are not rude. In fact, over the years, there have been many whose annual visits I anticipate. One, a family favorite, even invited us to his own wedding in Yerushalayim. Most, as far as I can tell, labor for institutions that I am honored to help — hospitals, orphanages, funds to aid victims of war and terror, yeshivas — and do so with great self-sacrifice despite age and infirmity.
The fact is, the halachic concept of tzedakah is clear that the meshulach is performing a service for the tzedakah donor, enabling us to imitate the goodness of the Creator, whom we beseech to “open Your hands, and give well-being freely to all living things.” So we need the needy — and their agent, the meshulach — as much as they need us. Through them we fulfill the moral mandate of building and sustaining the Jewish community.
The question, though, is: how many of those ringing our bells are truly needy themselves or effectively representing those in need? While all of those who work the Seward Park-Hawthorne Hills-Eastside triangle carry a document issued by Seattle’s Va’ad HaRabbanim attesting to their legitimacy, the word on the street is that a growing number seem to be ignoring the Va’ad’s explicit ground rules.
Item: representatives of institutions are not supposed to collect for their personal needs. Yet, who among us, after writing out a check for the learning-disabled children of this or that Galilean development town, has not heard: “Oh, by the way, can you spare a little something for my daughter’s hassene? My mother’s surgery?”
Item: a meshulach’s manners should reflect the dignity of his mission, and the donor’s response should be gracious and as generous as possible. But where is that standard when our doorbells ring three or four times a night to reveal assertive men, sometimes in pairs, pulling from their coats tattered copies of last year’s check, suggesting that this year “you can maybe do better!”
Can I give tzedakah in the proper spirit of gratitude when I suspect that the guy pocketing my check thinks I’m some rich, American freier — a sucker? Many of us have households with two wage-earning adults that can’t manage a Bar or Bat Mitzvah at the Kotel (or maybe even day school tuition). So how is it that the pauper at our door is raising his daughter’s dowry by running up expenses that include a round-trip trans-Atlantic flight, journeys to15 major Jewish metropolitan centers from New York to L.A., and three months of lost work? I await the math.
Meanwhile, I’ve posted this notice above my doorbell in Hebrew and English: “We offer the sum of $1 to all who knock on our door or ring our bell for a charitable contribution, unless they have made a personal appointment at least 24 hours in advance by phone.”
I’ll be sure to let you know how it works!
Martin Jaffee teaches in both the Comparative Religion and Jewish Studies programs at the University of Washington. When not masquerading as a journalist, he writes on the history of Talmudic literature as well as theoretical problems in the study of religion.