“Hello, Mrs. Rudolph!” the smiling man greets me, as I answer the front door.
I have just gotten up from dinner in response to the familiar sequence of events: first, the doorbell and a two-second pause, then a knock on the door, followed by an immediate rap on the window.
I know my salad will get soggy, but I have trained myself not to care.
“Hello,” I answer with a little less enthusiasm than his. (An interruption is still an interruption, but I’m working on it.)
“You remember me, right?” he continues, smiling.
I’m not sure I do, but he goes on to tell me something about the last time he was in town. He shows me a miniature copy of a check I gave him; the writing is clearly mine.
By this time, I am usually in the right frame of mind for this encounter.
These people are known as meshulachim, emissaries who come to town to collect tzedakah. Sometimes they carry a book about a school or soup kitchen they run, and sometimes they come collecting for their own personal or family needs.
I’m not sure how they know whose houses to go to in other cities, but in Pittsburgh, the observant community publishes an annual directory of names and addresses of people who, among other things, will answer the door when the meshulachim come knocking.
Some meshulachim are friendly and appreciative, and they leave my house covering my entire wish list of blessings. Others ask me for more money, and when I don’t give it to them, they are clearly disappointed.
I have learned that it’s not my job to judge anyone who comes to my door. I just know it’s G-d’s way of giving me the opportunity to do a tremendous mitzvah. (After I learned how kindly He regards us in return for giving generously, it was actually hard not to get carried away: my husband and I established a set amount for meshulachim, and I try very hard to stick to it.)
It has taken time to appreciate that tzedakah is more than a Jewish ethical obligation, that it also has a spiritual component. If I do it right, I’m supposed to become a more compassionate person, to actually feel the pain of a less fortunate Jew. But it’s even more than that. Our sages say that the receiver actually does more for the giver than the giver does for the receiver. If not for the existence of the person in need, the giver would not have been able to perform this beautiful mitzvah. Spiritually speaking, tzedakah is meant to humble the giver through the grateful awareness of the opportunity G-d has given him.
Each in our own way, we are all givers and receivers, whether spiritually or materially. Teacher/student, parent/child, buyer/seller; for us to accomplish anything of consequence in this world, we need an “other.” Ultimately, as Jews, we all need each other; the mitzvah of tzedakah is one way G-d helps us to recognize this.
As Rosh Hashanah approaches, we are reminded that a King also needs a people. May this be the year that G-d lifts the veil that obscures His light, so that all people can be free to serve Him joyfully, with everyone’s needs met, both spiritually and materially.
May we all be inspired with a good, sweet, and healthy New Year!
Pittsburgh writer Lieba Rudolph’s blog, “The Chosen View,” can be found at thejewishchronicle.net/thechosenview.