If you’re like me, you probably get a ton of emails and countless mailed letters asking you to donate or to give to an organization. Many of them come around this time of the year, when the holiday spirit and the spirit of giving seem to collide in a frenzy of toys, appliances, gadgets and monetary donations. We hear the high-pitched jingles of the Salvation Army’s bell as we walk past our nearest grocer or pharmacist, or encounter people on street corners asking for spare change for organizations such as Misericordia or the Boys and Girls Club. Most of us do not ask for these seasonal solicitations, and probably do not give many of these a second thought.
Personally, I’ve collected close to 60 separate pieces of mail since Thanksgiving, and they still keep coming and probably won’t stop until the New Year. How do you not feel overwhelmed or lost among all the choices and solicitations for your donations? How do you choose which organizations to donate to or volunteer time?
The topic of tzedakah and its connection to the holiday shopping and gift-giving season really make me think more carefully about what it means to me. More particularly, it makes me wonder about how I can give as a Jewish person and how I can better understand how my decisions for tzedakah help shape the world around me and impact other people’s lives. I didn’t just want to give to a popular charity or organization, and I didn’t want to just write checks and click “Donate Now” on a website. I wanted to search for something a little more, and what I found surprised even myself.
Believe it or not, it all started with a group of sixth graders ...
Last year, my sixth grade religious school class had a special lesson on tzedakah organized and run by the American Jewish World Service. It was part of a series of lectures preparing the students for their bar or bat mitzvah. Included in the morning’s activities was a very interesting exercise that involved a little Torah study. The students and their parents were asked to look at eight different charity scenarios and decide how high or low that act of charity ranks on Maimonides’ Eight Degrees of Tzedakah.
The students were given eight slips of paper, one corresponding to each degree of tzedakah, and then asked to rank them to see how it matches up with Maimonides’ own list. Most of the groups were able to get the highest and lowest degrees, but there was some disagreement over the middle degrees. This was the first time that many of the students saw this list and didn’t even know that one could rank charity into different degrees. Isn’t all charity the same? Why does one type of giving get a higher rank than others? Isn’t all charity and giving a good thing? Why should we compare how we choose to give?
I was wondering the same questions myself. Personally, I hadn’t really given much thought to my own feelings and decisions on tzedakah. Up until I graduated college, my parents would donate around this time each year and make donations on behalf of me and my siblings. Since then, we have all been responsible and accountable for our own charitable actions: my brother found UJA-Jewish Federation and AIPAC in New York and discovered his passion for Jewish volunteer work and philanthropy. My sister, through her medical school program, worked at a facility that assisted abuse victims and their children, and would spend her summer days playing with the children instead of opting to go to the beach or on a road trip. For me, I’ve been involved with JUF attending Israel Solidarity Day and YLD events and engaging in opportunities for tikkun olam.
I learned above all that giving tzedakah needs to come from the heart. As long as it’s sincere and meaningful, and as long as it’s helping others to live and survive, it counts. Some years, I’d set aside clothes that wouldn’t fit and drop them off at a resale shop. A couple of years ago, rather than giving gift cards or writing checks to friends and family, I began to plant trees in Israel and give them as gifts.
While I shared these experiences with my students, I couldn’t help but think to myself that, while these were thoughtful and meaningful ways to give to charity and to help out those in need, was I being complacent? Was I, according to Maimonides, taking the easy way out and choosing a lesser degree of tzedakah than I was capable of doing? Was I capable of doing more?
According to Maimonides, the highest degree “is that of a person who assists a poor person...by putting him where he can dispense with other people’s aid ... [to] strengthen him in such a manner that his falling into want is prevented.”
This was difficult for many of the students to understand, so I told them a true story that another teacher recently shared with me so they could understand, and even imagine and visualize themselves performing this act of kindness themselves.
A man was wrongfully jailed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, hanging out with some shady people one moment and charged with murder the next (get the full story on WBEZ). Eventually, after three years of legal battles and pro bono work from generous lawyers, a jury found him not guilty and he was acquitted. I explained to the students that they lawyers saw through the financial expense they were poised to endure and decided that helping a wrongfully accused stranger get out of prison – a place this man never imagined he’d go or even belong in – was the right thing to do. They saw an opportunity to give without expecting anything in return, to free an innocent man so he could go on living his life.
After I finished the story, the students barraged me with questions. Of course, many of us don’t get the experience or opportunity to perform this very high degree of tzedakah, so it generated lots of inquiry. What came over these lawyers that motivated them to provide this ultimate act of kindness? Did they have any expectations that he would pay them back in some way? Did the man have to promise to be good and stay away from bad people or bad things? Did they ever catch the real bad guys, and were they punished?
It turns out that this innocent man is now enrolled in college and fixing computers for a living, and the lawyers who sacrificed their time and energy to help a complete stranger for 10 long years still keep in touch with him on a regular basis.
So this season, and for the future, I encourage everyone to find their own path of tzedakah, to embrace the culture of giving freely and selflessly, and to pay it forward in whatever way works for you. The sixth graders taught me that it’s never too soon or too late to start giving, and to give thoughtfully and meaningfully.