Ever since I can remember there have been beggars out on Safed's commercial street. Summer, winter, dead of cold or blistering hot days, they're there, asking for a few shekels.
I once attended a class about giving "tzdekka" -- charity -- in which the rabbi said that, according to Jewish law, if someone asks you for tzdekka, you can't refuse. You can give a few coins, less than the person requesting the money would have liked, but you can't refuse.
I won't go into detail as to the questions this raises. Can you give money to someone knowing that they'll use it for alcohol, cigarettes or even drugs? What is you don't know for sure that that's where the money will go, but you suspect the possibility? What do you do if you're feeling stretched yourself? What do you do if the person asking you is the fifth person to approach you that day and you're fed up? Are phone solicitations covered under this rule? What do you do if the person seems to be able-bodied and you just want to say "go get a job."
Well, that's a whole different post. What I started thinking about on Friday, as I made my way through my Friday-morning chores and found myself dropping coins in the boxes and cups of five different people, is....what happened to the people that I used to see? I sweet, gentle Russian woman who walked the street for years? She evidently used to teach English in Russia and was a voracious reader.
There was a heavy Israeli grandmother-type whose legs seemed to be in serious stages of gangrene from diabetes and, no matter what I gave her, would say "nothing more?"
One of the most memorable was a blind Russian man who would sit in front of the bakery and sing Yiddish songs. His wife, a little Russian lady, would come over to him sometimes to bring him food or drinks.
There were mothers who would stand out on the street with their babies. Other mothers who just told you about their kids at home. There was a sweet man who always smelled of alcohol. I can't even count how many others -- life was just getting them down.
You know that these people didn't leave the street because they suddenly won the lottery or something equally as great happened to them. They just faded away, but their places don't remain empty for long.