Thursday, May 24, 2012

Overthinking Tzedakah

By Susan Esther Barnes

My beloved husband sometimes says I overthink things. I’m pretty sure this is one of those times.

Let me start by explaining that “tzedakah” is the Hebrew word for “justice” or “righteousness.” When we give money to a person who needs it, it is not an act of charity; it is an act of justice. All Jews are commanded to give tzedakah. In fact, the first thing a person is supposed to do when they receive tzedakah is to turn around and give tzedakah to someone else.

There is a wonderful story about two beggars in a little town. They were both having a bad day, and each one only had one coin to his name. When they passed each other on the street, the first beggar gave his only coin as tzedakah to the second one, and the second beggar gave his one coin to the first one. As they continued on their way, they each still had only one coin, but they were both richer for the experience.

So, here’s my story: There is a large strip mall near where I work. I often go there for various reasons, including to shop at Safeway or Costco, to get lunch, to do some banking, or to pick up something at the dry cleaner’s or the drug store. Often, there is a person holding a sign asking for money, standing at the parking lot exit.

My first bit of overthinking involves the sentence above. In this post I could call these folks “homeless people,” but I don’t know whether or not they are homeless. Sometimes they have a sign saying they are homeless, but often the sign doesn’t specify their living arrangements.

I could call them “beggars,” but that seems a bit derogatory. I assume these folks are just doing this temporarily – it’s not like it’s their vocation. What they are doing now shouldn’t become a label with which we define them. The term “beggar” seems to lessen their humanity. So, what should I call these people? I don’t have a good answer.

When I see a person asking for money, there is no question about what I should do. I know that no matter what I intend to buy that day, it’s going to cost me some extra cash if there is a person waiting at the exit.

I used to automatically give the person a dollar. But then I thought, “I’ve been giving people with signs a dollar for years.” During that time, the price of pretty much everything has increased. As a result, the value of the dollar I have been giving by rote has decreased quite a bit since I first started giving them out. So recently, everyone got a raise. I upped it to two dollars.

At any rate (yes, that was a bad pun – sorry about that), I noticed that every time I give some cash to one of the people at the exit, it’s a different person. There never seems to be the same person there twice. They seem to be on some sort of rotation. Why is that? I started to wonder if there is some sort of schedule that they have worked out.

Then, I started thinking, maybe it’s an experiment. I can imagine some professor dreaming up a study, and having different types of people with different types of signs standing on different days in the same place.

An unobtrusive observer would be taking notes about how many people stop and how much money they give, and then do an analysis based on the receiver’s race, gender, clothing, sign, etc. They could even do a cross-correlation based on the giver’s race, gender, clothing, type of car, etc.

The above scenario is probably just another object of my habit of overthinking.

The next bit of overthinking comes in when I use the second entrance to the strip mall instead of the first one. This is the entrance that goes by Costco, but also leads to a number of other destinations.

If I’m going to one of the other destinations, I have to pass by the exit from the Costco parking lot, where there is also often a person asking for money. The question arises (in my mind, anyway), if I’m not going to Costco, is, “Am I obligated to go out of my way to drive into the Costco parking lot anyway, so I can drive back out and give the person there some money?”

After all, even though it would be a bit out of my way, I can see the person standing there. They need money. I don’t think we’re only supposed to give tzedakah when it’s utterly convenient to do so.

Yesterday, it got a little worse. I actually was going to Costco, and as I drove by the guy at the exit and parked, I was thinking I would give him some money on the way out. But then I thought, “What if he isn’t there any more? What if he leaves while I’m in the store?”

We are told that we should run, not walk, to do a mitzvah, lest we lost the opportunity. I wrote a whole story about that a number of years ago. So, I actually got out of my car, walked over to the exit, and gave the guy some money before I walked back through the parking lot and into the store.

But then, as I got ready to leave the store, I kept thinking, “I already gave him money. I’m not obligated to give him more on my way out. But if I just drive past him on the way out without giving him anything, and he doesn’t recognize me (and why would he?) then he may think, ‘There goes yet another uncaring person who won’t help me out.’ Ugh.”

I suppose, if I were a better person, I would have just given him another buck or two. But instead, I went out of my way to drive out another exit. And now I’m still thinking about it.