I heard the knocking on my front door clearly. Rap-rap-rap-rap! The sound of anticipation. Won’t someone please answer the door? I didn’t want to get the door. I was all but certain it was a meshulach, literally, a messenger, in need of money. They walk the streets of Jewish neighborhoods, men and women both, looking for mezuzahs affixed to the doorpost, a sign that a Jew lives there and won’t turn them away.
I am usually at home with my husband, and sometimes our daughter, in the evenings, and we answer the door for meshulachim every time. But I was alone and decided to ignore all obligations for the next hour. I would leave the dinner cleanup, the ordering of the newspapers and mail, even the knock on the door. I told myself I was not obligated to answer every call of every beggar, especially when I was alone at night. Besides, I was eager to settle in to watch Downton Abbey, a series that has me transfixed.
The twinge of guilt for ignoring the second set of raps on the door barely registered; all my sympathies at the moment were focused on the troubles afflicting the characters in a mythical castle in Edwardian England.
Living in a Jewish neighborhood, the needy knock at our door regularly, sometimes several times a week. Ever since my husband came home with a sign that says “Welcome Shabbat Guests!” which stays on the porch at a poorly hidden angle Sunday through Thursday, we seem to attract even more.
Many of the “messengers” come from Israel, and I can’t help but wonder how they pay for a round-trip ticket to Los Angeles when they are in such dire straits. Sometimes, the meshulachim are collecting for a yeshiva or other academy for Jewish studies. But most are individuals who have hit hard times. The man with nine children, no job, two daughters still to marry off. The divorced woman with no job, in urgent need of dental surgery. Sometimes they come in pairs, but are collecting as individuals, something I learned at modest check-writing expense.
We often invite them in, and sometimes they will sit down and accept food or drink. It can be heartbreaking to see them, not only their profound personal distress but also their struggle to maintain dignity. Our sympathy is genuine; we, who have never known this sort of want, cannot imagine walking the streets in their worn out shoes. When we give them a check, they usually shower us with blessings, sometimes with tears in their eyes. They bless us with health and mazal, for good marriages for our unmarried children, for success and for peace. We return their blessings in full.
I was still drying my eyes from the evening’s episode of Downton Abbey when I heard it again: Rap-rap-rap-rap. Clearly, the Almighty wasn’t going to let me get away with displaying more sympathy for make-believe characters than for His own flesh-and-blood people. I opened the door to a man who appeared to be in his forties, well dressed, with a small black carrying case. He greeted me by name, and I asked him how he knew it. “Joe” explained that he had knocked on our door before, and my husband had helped him with a generous sum, which he specified. Was my husband home now?
No, I said, but I told him I would help with what I could. Joe launched into his story, which involved working for a company that been fingered by the federal government for illegal commercial dealings. Despite his insistence to the feds that his job had been too low-level for him to be culpable for the wrongdoing, he ended up in prison for several years. With a federal record, he works as a delivery guy for a kosher store. Joe said he needed $20,000 for medical treatment and had no insurance. He kept talking, showing me his medication bottles, and papers with doctors’ evaluations. I tried to balance my compassion with reasonable limits on how long I could listen.
When I asked if he had the certificate from a local Jewish communal organization that tries to “vet” the stories of the meshulachim, he fished it out but dismissed its relevance, which I found surprising and off-putting. Don’t those of us who are asked to give have a right to know the stories we are hearing have been verified to some degree?
“I’m so sorry about your troubles,” I said. “I’ll write you a check, but we have many people knocking on the door, so it will be a modest amount.” He seemed surprised, and made a flippant remark questioning how severe other people’s needs were compared to his. Now I was almost angry. Was he that naïve or arrogant? Did he think he was the only one in financial crisis in the Jewish community? What if his story wasn’t entirely true?
As I wrote a check for much more than I usually give, I regretted the amount. How did I know how many more people we’d have the opportunity to help during the rest of the week? And what if he wasn’t for real? Maybe he had fooled the people at the organization that gives the certificate.
Joe took the check and thanked me, but was still angling for more. “Should I come back later when your husband is home?” he asked. He added that he lived far away, and it wasn’t often that he could get to our neighborhood and see us. I was firm in answering “No.” I assumed a friend had loaned him the nice, new car he had parked across the street.
Not two minutes later, my husband came home. I told him about Joe’s visit and why it had rankled me. What if his story wasn’t for real? I asked.
“Who knows? It doesn’t matter. He’s a Jew in some sort of need,” my husband said.
Of course he was right. We are only trustees of the Almighty’s money, as the Mishnah says, “Give to Him what is His because you and yours are His” (Ethics of the Fathers 3:8). Joe was a true meshulach, a messenger reminding me of my immense blessings, as well as my obligations not to harden my heart, even for an hour.
(This essay originally appeared on Aish.com.)