“Hello, Mrs. Rudolph!” the smiling man greets me as I answer the front door.

I have just gotten up from dinner in response to the familiar sequence of events: first the doorbell, then a two-second pause, then a knock on the door, followed by an immediate rap on the window.

I know my salad will get soggy, but I have trained myself not to mind.

“Hello,” I answer with a little less enthusiasm than his. (An interruption is still an interruption, but I’m working on it.)I know my salad will get soggy

“You remember me, right?” he continues, smiling.

I’m not sure I do, but he goes on to tell me something about the last time he was in town. He shows me a miniature copy of a check I gave him before; the writing is clearly mine.

By this time, I am usually in the right frame of mind for this encounter.

These people are known as meshulachim, emissaries who come to town to collect tzedakah (charity). Sometimes they carry a book about a school or soup kitchen they run, and sometimes they come collecting for their own personal or family needs.

How do they know whose houses to go to? I’m not sure about other cities, but in Pittsburgh the observant Jewish community publishes an annual directory of names and addresses of people who, among other things, will answer the door when the meshulachim come knocking.

Some meshulachim are friendly and appreciative, and they leave my house showering me with blessings. Others ask me for more money, and when I don’t give it to them, they are clearly displeased. (After I learned how kindly G‑d regards us when we give generously, it was actually hard not to get carried away. My husband and I finally established a set amount for meshulachim, and I try very hard to stick to it.)

It has taken many soggy salads, but I now appreciate that tzedakah is more than a Jewish ethical obligation or a mitzvah to check off. I’m supposed to become a more compassionate person It also has a spiritual component. If I do it right, I’m supposed to become a more compassionate person, to actually feel the pain of another Jew.

But it’s more than that. If not for the person knocking at my door, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to perform a tremendous mitzvah. From this perspective the encounter is transformed into a G‑dly experience, a reminder that it’s His world, that we are all here to serve Him in different ways as both givers and receivers, and that every Jew plays an essential role in accomplishing this.