Monday, September 2, 2013
Begging for Change
Somehow, he has this knack for showing up exactly at supper time - no matter when we actually sit down to eat. As has become our weekly ritual on Monday nights, the pounding on the door starts as the kids are finally settling down and eating their food. I'm vaguely aware of my eyes rolling as I stand up and head downstairs to open the door for this fellow who has become a fixture in our community, making the rounds every week with a new story that conveys his terrible financial situation. He starts talking even before the door is fully open to reveal his diminutive stature, his broken English barely audible or intelligible as he waves the latest letter of approbation in my face.
His pitch barely registers; two weeks ago it was paying for his son's bar-mitzvah - a few weeks prior to that it was his lack of air conditioning in the insufferable heat. His overall problems stem from the prostate cancer and their treatment, but I never really scrutinize the countless hamlatzot. My policy is that if the fellow is asking for help, I'll try to help him. But even that has limits.
This weekly visit didn't always happen. Originally we would see him every few months - gradually it became every few weeks, until he started coming every week, without fail, on Monday night. Initially we would give him from our ma'aser account, writing out modest checks each time, but as his visits became more frequent we became more uncertain whether we could continue giving him from our ma'aser, certainly not the same amount consistently each time. And so we began giving him out of pocket - not a set amount per se, but rather what we had to give. This didn't sit well with him as our contributions dried up to a trickle. Still, we try not to give less than five dollars at a shot.
This last time, as I hand him a ten, he shakes his head and waves it off. Can't I give him more? Maybe fifty dollars? I apologize and tell him that this is what we are able to give at this time. He presses me for more. Maybe if he comes back later? Maybe I can write him a check? I'm torn. I want to help him, I can see his pain, but I explain to him that we want to be able to help him each time he comes but that means for us in our situation that we can only give so much at a time...
He's upset, and he makes sure that I know it. Internally I take a breath and count to to ten; I knwo I shouldn't lose my patience. I apologize again but I maintain my position. I offer him a drink but he's not interested. He gives a frustrated grunt and stalks off with my ten dollar bill in his balled up fist. I close the door behind him, feeling dissonant. On the one hand I feel more justified in this, but maybe I'm wrong...?
Later, I'm grocery shopping and he shows up in the store, looking for food from the take out. He asks for the manager who has just disappeared into the back, but it seems as if he's a regular visitor there, because the lady manning the counter recognizes him and tells him that the manager is "gone for the day" (?). I pretend at first as if I don't realize what's happening but as I finish my shopping I see him just skulking around the counter, waiting to see if the manager is going to reappear. He looks hungry. It must take a lot of energy to go around all day, and maybe I'm feeling guilty about our earlier encounter so I buy him some supper.
Later still, I'm at the last mincha of the day; I get there early, hoping to use the time to catch up on the daf. Guess who's making the rounds in shul? Nobody pays him any mind as he walks up and down the aisles waving his laminated approbation in every face. There's a bearded fellow in the back who flips him a quarter, and by virtue of his being the only interaction so far, the collector vents his anger, frustration, and probably embarrassment on the guy. "You are the only one in this whole shul who gave me anything today!" he explodes, unable to control himself any longer. He waves at the whole shul in a sweeping arc, a gesture that is as much as an indictment as it is a complaint. The bearded one, however, won't hear of it: "Listen friend," he says loud enough for me to hear him from several tables away, "what do you expect? You come here every week. You hand around here all day, and you want every single person to give you fifty dollars. It's not going to happen! And another thing: you're not the only one who needs! I need too!" This conversation continued until the Rabbi walked in and we began mincha, but I couldn't concentrate.
Why did I have these three run-ins with this guy today?
What is HaShem trying to tell me?
The whole week and throughout Shabbos I couldn't get it out of my mind, and then it was time for selichos late motzei Shabbos. And then I saw these words:
...כדלים וכרשים דפקנו דלתיך
How many times are we inhabiting this fellow's role regarding our relationship with God? How often do we come back asking for more, asking Him to give and give again? And we're lucky; we are dealing with the Infinitely Patient One, Who will continue doling out blessings and health even when we're malingering, even when we really don't deserve it. So not only do we have to emulate that benevolence, we also have to understand that it's not all about taking; we have to give, and part of that means taking on the cause of those who don't have to give...