Naivete & Tzedaka
"Mark" and "Uncle Dave" came over to the more affluent section of town each afternoon with the hopes that kind-hearted college students would be sympathetic and give them a dollar here or there. As a somewhat naive college freshman who had never lived in a big city, I was somewhat intrigued by their humor and easy going nature. I don't exactly remember the details of how it all started now, however, I spent countless nights that first semester sitting out in front of the record store with these two African-American homeless men keeping them company as they begged for spare change.
Aside from all the jokes we would tell, there were times when they told me about things they witnessed the previous night in the crime-ridden section of the city, or things that had happened in the abandoned building where they and many crack addicts would sleep at night. Now as I am writing this, I recall that there was even one time when Mark and I took the subway over to his neighborhood to go to a movie there together. After buying him some fried chicken for dinner later that night, I remember walking past the crack addicts before I got back on the subway and returned to the safety and security of my college campus.
Our friendship became strained as the months went on. There were times when he called my dorm room in the middle of the night and asked me take money out of the ATM for him because he was in trouble. Although I agreed and went and got him $20 from the ATM on one or two occasions, on other occasions I lied and told him that I did not have any money because I felt that I was being used. I felt guilty afterwards, nevertheless, I started taking alternate routes so I would not need to go by the record store and could avoid him.
I returned to campus the following year school year and I noticed that only "Uncle Dave" was still out in front of the record store; still attempting to dance like James Brown while singing a medley of R&B songs. When I asked him were Mark was, he replied that Mark was sent to prison over the summer for armed robbery. (Ironically, Mark had always said he was the clean one and candidly told me that Uncle Dave was a heroin addict.)
Reflecting upon that time in my life, I can now see that that my understanding of the concept of tzedaka displayed a certain element of naivete. Tzedakah is ultimately about the giver and not the receiver, however, if we don't investigate whether the people we give tzedaka to are truly worthy, then are tzedaka may not truly be tzedaka.