Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Money Matters

First I'm going to get personal. Then I'm going to ask for money.

When I was growing up, my family didn't have a lot of money. We weren't poor by any stretch of the imagination but no one would confuse us for rich. Luxury items weren't unknown, but I didn't get a new weekday hat for my bar mitzvah. I was thick, and all these distinctions went right over my head. Material things have never flagged my interest, so I was oblivious to money matters. I didn't realize why my father "volunteered" for the yeshiva's fundraising until I was old enough to...well, let's just say it's embarrassing how long it took me.

My father is a baal tzedakah to the core of his being. He could no more say no to a request for help then he could flap his arms and fly. It physically pains him to see someone suffer. When I was in my early teens my father was a volunteer for a local food delivery tzedakah. The organization delivers food for Shabbos and Yom Tov to local families that need it. Every Thursday night my father would take the family car for many, many hours, coming home late at night tired from shlepping boxes full of food and soul-weary from seeing suffering. For a few of those weeks, he took me along.

My father didn't really need the help. I couldn't drive and he was more than capable of carrying the food to the door, but he knew what he was doing. I wasn't helping him; he was helping me to a life lesson. I was too young and immature to truly understand the lesson, but every detail stuck with me until I was old enough to.

I quickly learned that the job was not just deliveryman and that not just anyone could do it. Like the chevra kaddisha, it required someone of a certain maturity, ethical sensitivity, tactful discretion, and lack of squeamishness. During my short tour of duty I saw apartments bare to the peeling walls with a carpet of dingy mattresses for the kids to sleep on. I saw widows left helpless and yungerleit at wit's end, all in neighborhoods you'd never guess contained such things. I was pressed silent by the rush of awareness of my own lot, never again to be taken for granted. Quiet is how I remember it; my father allowing the experience to speak for itself. But the incident that's indelibly seared into my memory is one delivery to an unassuming-looking home.

It was towards the end of our shift, late at night. My father and I carried the boxes to the door, rang the doorbell, and shuffled the weight around in our arms while waiting for an answer. We heard scuffling and the door was yanked open. In the doorway was a very tired-looking middle-aged woman with eyes that said "Hurry." But before she had a chance to even greet us, the night's stillness was pierced by a shocking shriek. Her daughter, a girl of maybe fourteen, was screaming at her mother with ferocity to behold, yelling at her for taking the food from tzedakah. The daughter was embarrassed and furious and screamed and screamed right in her mother's face. "I DON'T WANT IT! WE DON'T NEED IT! WE'RE NOT TAKING TZEDAKAH!"

The mother tried to talk her daughter down, to explain to her that they desperately needed it, think of your brothers and sisters, but the screaming just got louder. The whole incident had thus far taken less than 10 seconds, but I was so shocked I was frozen to the ground. My father knew what to do. He leaned over, whispered something into the lady's ear, and briskly walked back towards the car. That snapped me out of it and I gratefully followed him.

In the car, he said something to me, but to be honest the exact words were lost on me. I was still shaken up, my ears were still ringing, and my head was still swimming. We finished the rest of the route without saying much.

That night at 3AM, my father got up, got dressed, took the car, and delivered the boxes he had told the lady he'd be back at 3:30 for. He didn't ring the doorbell.

Have you ever been caught short at the grocery checkout and been embarrassed while putting stuff back in front of the whole line? Like sleep is one sixtieth of death is that pain compared to humiliation of asking for food. Unfortunately, as my father was wise enough to show me, there is poverty in our communities, hiding just below the sight line. It's hard enough to overcome the shame of needing help, and in a community where stigma remains a powerful negative force, asking for help is tremendously difficult. The Rambam understood this when he formulated his levels of tzedakah, which are sorted entirely by the issue of the recipient's dignity. See how wise was the Rambam, whose each improved level of tzedakah leaves the ani with more of his or her dignity:

8. Giving begrudgingly.
7. Giving less that you should, but giving it cheerfully.
6. Giving after being asked.
5. Giving before being asked.
4. Giving when you do not know the recipient's identity, but the recipient knows your identity.
3. Giving when you know the recipient's identity, but the recipient doesn't know your identity.
2. Giving when neither party knows the other's identity.
1. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant.

From a NY Daily News article:

Desperately embarrassed that she needs help feeding her family, a young Orthodox Jewish mother put on dark sunglasses as she approached one of the city's few kosher soup kitchens.

Inside, the woman, a victim of domestic violence, sat behind a row of plants set up to shield diners who don't want to be seen at Masbia, a restaurant-style free kitchen that opened in Borough Park a year ago.

"My kids don't know it's a soup kitchen," said the mother of four teens who would not give her name and comes alone so there is more food for her children. "They think it's a restaurant - I don't want them to be ashamed."

When I read those words, I was instantly transported back to that night with my father, and my donation wasn't far behind. The founders of Masbia clearly know what my father taught me about the preciousness of dignity; that no one should have to choose between being hungry and being ashamed.

As the Rambam showed, Judaism's concern for charity is nuanced and well-developed from long years of philanthropic activity. From Ruth's author using charity as a setting familiar to his audience to tell his tale to the story of Avraham receiving guests and greeting them with food, Judaism has long concerned itself with charity. Judaism has had the mitzvah of tzedakah for far longer than it's even had the name "Judaism." Charity is so central to Judaism that it shares the word for righteousness. There's no doubt about it: charity is a 100% factory original part of Judaism.

We of the jblogosphere love to debate. There's probably at least a mezuman of you right now thinking about debating that last sentence. But hunger can't be debated with. In the face of hunger, debate must cease and action be taken. Let's put the power of the jblogosphere to productive purpose and support a charity in the way of Judaism. Please click the image below and give what you can to allow the hungry to eat with dignity. Don't even pause to add a comment before donating. If you have a blog, please add a link to this appeal--right after you've donated. No matter if your frum or frei, chareidi or chasidic, misnagid or Mis-nagid, show me that you've absorbed the ethos of your forebears, those rachmonim bnei rachmonim, by aiding those in need. Tizku l'mitzvot.

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