Chodesh Elul is dedicated to soul searching and spiritual growth. But for a great many in our community, it is also a time of enormous financial stress.
The beginning of a new school year is exciting for youngsters; it is a time of hopes and expectations. But it also is when children expect — and deserve — to be taken on extensive shopping excursions.
As much as families seek to cut back on expenditures, the basic needs of their children cannot be ignored. While pencil cases and perhaps a briefcase can sometimes be used for another year, when it comes to clothing for growing children, there is no such option. There are only a certain number of months a pair of shoes will last, and a child of any age can’t attend school wearing clothes a size too small. School uniforms are cheaper and far easier to shop for than Shabbos clothing, but their costs still add up very quickly to a sizable sum of money.
For a teenage girl, not having a respectable looking Shabbos outfit — and, of course, Shabbos shoes — make for a mortifying experience that can be very detrimental to her social standing. Even if her classmates do have the good sense not to say anything, she will feel their pitying glances and will be traumatized by the experience.
Growing bachurim need new suits and hats, and even the cheaper brands are astonishingly expensive.
These items only account for a small part of the outfits needed by an average household — the little ones and parents need to have what to wear as well — and clothing is only the tip of the iceberg. The hard-working parents are doing all they possibly can to bring in the necessary income, but despite their endeavors, they still fall short. Some have lost their jobs and have been unable to find work. Others do have jobs — some even two jobs — but the earnings still fall short of their expenditures. Even the most frugal parent invariably finds that a dollar can only be stretched to a certain point, and as much as they seek to avoid unnecessary expenses, they still face a huge budget gap.
In many cases, the only viable solution is for those in the community who are doing well financially to exert themselves even more, and to do so in a manner that allows those in need to emerge with their dignity intact.
Chazal make it clear to us that those blessed with financial success are no more than trustees and caretakers of money that actually belongs to the poor and the underprivileged. They were given this task not because the poor man is unworthy of having the money himself, but so that the wealthy can accrue much needed zechuyos.
The Chofetz Chaim states that when Chazal appear to instruct that one should not dispense more than a fifth of his possessions to tzedakah, this is not referring to the wealthy. The reason for the Chazal is to teach that the prospective donor’s own life and basic needs come before those of another. “Your life comes first,” says the Chofetz Chaim, “but not your wealth.”
Our community is blessed with spiritual heroes such as individuals who walk into grocery stores and offer to pay up the overdue accounts of impoverished strangers, and store owners who discreetly sell products below cost to those who can’t afford to pay the full price.
Many of these individuals aren’t necessarily “wealthy.” Rather, they recognize that giving tzedakah is the most valuable investment imaginable, and seek to cut corners in their own spending so that they can help others. May all those who have the means to do so be granted the wisdom to emulate them.