Who’s That Knocking At My Door? A Jewish Dilemma
If you live outside an Orthodox community, you may not be aware of how, in many (most? all?) Orthodox communities, people go door-to-door collecting tzedaka (charity). Sometimes it’s for an institution they represent. Sometimes it’s for a specific need they have, like a medical expense, a child’s wedding or to pay off a heavy debt.
For me, this all started, decades ago, innocently enough. In my first year of marriage to my then-pulpit rabbi husband, an older man came to the door. This was my first experience dealing with the phenomenon. Back then, I had no idea this was a common thing. I thought it was a one-off situation. So I invited him in, sat down at the table with him and listened to his whole sad tale. And I gave him money.
Fast forward 10 years and there were often six or seven people knocking at our door each night. It was very hard to deal with, especially when our children were small.
Some people have developed specific family policies for managing this. They may only give a token amount. They may give more to those whose stories or causes touch their hearts. They may decide not to answer their door at all unless they are expecting someone. They may give to this person or this cause but not that.
Easily 90% of tzedaka collectors who go door-to-door are men. I tend to have a soft spot for women. Since we’ve been living in Israel, there have been quite a few women who come to our door. At first, I was generous. I was sympathetic to their very challenging situations. And I was sympathetic to how uncomfortable it must be to be a woman alone, going door-to-door.
In the past few days, two of these women, each of whom I have seen a third or fourth or fifth time, have come back. A few days ago, I was literally on my way out the door, very pressed for time when one of them knocked. I gave her a donation, significantly less than I had given her in the past, but more than a few dollars. I explained that I had to go to a shiva house.
She was very insistent, claiming that she came from far away specifically to see me. She cried and begged to come in and talk to me. It was exceedingly uncomfortable. I tried to be polite, but I had no time to engage in a conversation with her. I left the exchange feeling sick to my stomach.
Today, another woman I have helped in the past came knocking. I was in the middle of a meeting. I got up from my meeting, sat with her, listened to her and gave her a donation. Not as much as she asked for, but something respectable. She clearly expected more. She began pleading, begging. Very insistent.
In response to her pleading, I told her that I was very sorry, but I couldn’t do more. I said that to her at least five times as I tried to encourage her to leave. She kept begging me for more money. In the end, I felt so pressured, I gave her whatever was left in my wallet. After she left, I felt incredibly unsettled about the whole interaction.
In Pirke Avot 2:21, the classic rabbinic text that teaches ethics, we learn the principle that, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
To me, this means that if someone comes to my door and says that she has a $500 debt with the electric company, I can’t completely ignore her need. Nor am I obligated to pay it off.
Similarly, in Judaism, we are taught that 90% of everything we earn is for us. Hashem gives us an additional 10% with which we are expected to give tzedaka. This practice, known as ma’aser, has its Biblical roots in the Torah portion of Vayeitzei (Bereshit 28:22).
For close to 30 years, I have kept very careful track of my income and my tzedaka expenses. I always give at least 10% of my income. I’m happy to give tzedaka and I believe that Hashem rewards us for being charitable. At the same time, I’m very unnerved by these two recent interactions with women who cried and begged for more money even after I gave.
In most cases, I give tzedaka willingly. I really believe that 10% of whatever comes into my hands isn’t mine to keep. That doesn’t stop me from wondering if these two recent experiences represent some kind of test that I’m failing.
I have neither solution nor resolution. These two incidents, and others like them, remain a dilemma for me, albeit a very Jewish one.
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