Giving Tuesday, Giving Tzedakah

December 2, 2014
There are many opportunities to give tzedakah.

There are many opportunities to give tzedakah.

Today is “Giving Tuesday.” It’s a new tradition, started last year, and while I am glad that people are giving charity today, it seems to me that the timing is backwards. We had the banquet on Thanksgiving, the shopping on “Black” Friday, the sales over the weekend, and “Cyber” Monday. The message seems to be that after we’ve had our dinner and done our shopping sprees, then we will give to the needy from what’s left.

It is a Jewish tradition to give tzedakah (money to relieve suffering – a form of the word for justice, tzedek) before every holiday. That means giving tzedakah on Friday, before Shabbat, and before sundown brings in any other holiday or celebration.

You may be thinking, “Ouch! that’s a lot of tzedakah!” but the amount isn’t specified, just the timing. We give before we celebrate. It helps us better appreciate the good things in our lives. For someone on a very limited budget, the amount would be extremely small, since Jewish law forbids us giving more than we can afford, but for the poor person it gives the dignity of knowing that he or she contributed, too. For someone extremely wealthy, giving regularly from a budget for giving is a way to keep wealth in perspective.

Disciplined giving keeps us awake and aware of the world around us. We cannot ignore the needy, if we give so regularly (after all, we have to choose where to give!) Since Jewish holidays come at least once a week (think Shabbat,) ideally we give small amounts so regularly that giving becomes a habit, part of our nature. Over a lifetime of tzedakah, the greatest benefit accrues to the giver, because he or she becomes a better person.

Shabbat will be here Friday night, and Chanukah is coming at sundown on Dec 16. Whether or not you give on Giving Tuesday, I invite you to join me in this ancient spiritual practice of regular tzedakah.


“I’d Like to Dedicate This…”

December 1, 2014

candlesChanukah means “dedication.” The holiday has that name because it recalls the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabean Revolt. Today we don’t have a temple in Jerusalem. Ever since year 70 of the common era the primary locus for Jewish life is in our homes, which we refer to as a mikdash me’at, a little sanctuary.

From Thanksgiving until January 1 in the United States, this sense of home as sanctuary is heightened for many Jews. Out in the world, we are surrounded by “the holiday season.” That phrase can mean a number of things, including:

  • For observant Christians, it is a remembrance of the birth of Jesus, preceded for some by the penitential season of Advent. Obviously, that’s not a Jewish celebration. We can enjoy Handel’s Messiah or the neighbor’s lighted creche, but for us, Jesus was at most a gifted teacher, not the messiah.
  • For most Americans, it is a once-yearly season of parties, gift-giving and family gatherings. When students tell me, “I don’t see Christmas as a religious holiday,” I know they see Christmas as a once-a-year season of warm feelings and nostalgia.
  • For some Americans, it is a season of excess: shopping, eating, and drinking too much, borrowing too much, envying too much, building towards a massive hangover in January. All of those things are a problem in terms of Jewish values.
  • For some Jews, it can be the season of feeling crowded by other people’s holidays. Or it can be a season of feeling left out.

“Aw, rabbi!” I can hear some readers saying, “Are you going to be a party pooper?” That is not my intent. What I’d like to do is to encourage you to think clearly about what you are doing this “holiday season.” How and what you celebrate is ultimately up to you.

This is the first of several articles I’m going to post about the season and for now I shall leave you with a question:

When you light your menorah for Chanukah, what are you dedicating, and to what are you dedicating it?


Out of My Comfort Zone

November 30, 2014
Not Funny.

Not Funny.

I am a conflict-avoider. Hateful speech scares me for reasons I can’t fully explain, even if I’m not the target of the speech. I have decided I have to get over that pronto, because of a conversation last week.

I was in a room where someone began talking about the terrible synagogue murders in Israel, and they used the words “Muslim” and “animals” in the same sentence. Another person in the group spoke up, someone married into a family with Muslim members. I had been making my usual polite distressed noises, which made no impression at all on the speaker. I was ashamed of myself: why did I not say something? Because I was nervous? Since that encounter, I have decided “never again.” I am going to be direct when I’m in a conversation and someone uses hateful language, no exceptions, unless I am quite sure it’s dangerous to say something.

Since my resolution to be more direct and vocal about hateful talk, the stuff seems to be everywhere. Yesterday, someone on Twitter made a very big deal of my objection to an offensive word in her bio: “Georgia native and former liberal with eyes wide open. Blocked by several notable libtards including…”  [Emphasis mine.] I sent a message privately that I was getting set to “follow” her when I read the bio. “That word is offensive,” I wrote, “And while it’s there, I am not going to follow you.” She didn’t reply directly to me, but from the public messages she broadcast after, it was clear that I’d just given her something new to brag about.

I’m not accomplishing much, especially in the toxic soup of political social media, but at least it’s practice. I need practice, because I need to get better at this. (And yes, I needed to be more specific that what I was objecting to was the “-tard” part of “libtard.” I’m still too quivery-Southern-lady polite to be useful. Working on that.)

It’s important that we speak up, especially for groups to whom we don’t belong. “Do not stand by the blood of your neighbor,” we are told in Leviticus 19:16. In the Talmud, the text says that it would be better for a person to allow himself to be tossed into a furnace than to willingly embarrass another person [Bava Metzia 58b.] We are also commanded to engage with someone who does something wrong, a mitzvah I wrote about at more length in the post, “The Mitzvah of Rebuke.”

I share my difficulties in living up to my resolution because I know I’m not the only conflict-averse person around. Many of us are conditioned not to upset others, and we have to override that conditioning to confront someone about hateful words. We may be tempted by rationalizations: “What difference will it really make?” or “It’s just going to be something else for him to brag about.” However, I know what it is like to have to say, “Look, I’m Jewish, and I didn’t care for that joke.” It is horrible to feel like both the target of the speech and the only one who will say something.

The problem applies to people on both sides of the political divide. I know good people who are conservatives who’d never use a word like “retard” or use it in a portmanteau like “libtard.” I also have heard liberals say some ghastly things, often involving some use of “nazi,” which is always offensive unless you are talking about actual members of a Nazi organization. I’m determined never to let such things pass again, no matter who says them. Words that dehumanize and words that demonize have no place in our public discourse. The fact that they have become common is only evidence that it is time for people of conscience to speak up.

So yes, it is awkward. And yes, it is worth doing. Nothing will get better with silence.


Thanksgiving Blessing

November 26, 2014

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign over all that is,
Who sets within human beings the desire to gather together
to prepare food with memory and gratitude, to share that food
with friends new and old, with family from near and far.

You give us minds to understand the issues of the day;
please grant us the love and patience
with which to respect our differences,
for when those who disagree can truly listen to one another
miracles can happen.

Grant us mindfulness about our food; bless those who grew it,
who picked it, and brought it to market.

Bless those who prepared it and cooked it.

Grant us the awareness of the many sources of this food,
not only in the present, but the minds and hearts in the past
who devised ways to make simple things delicious.

May we rise from this table
with new understandings of one another:
filled not only with food,
but with gratitude for our many blessings.

Blessed are you, Holy One, who has given us hearts
that can appreciate one another,
and the many blessings we receive.

Amen.

 


Justice, Justice

November 25, 2014

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף

Justice, justice, you shall pursue! – Deuteronomy 16:20

My children grew up in Oakland, CA. They are two white men, and because they’ve grown up in Oakland, they have many friends who are African Americans or Latinos. Since they were in middle school my sons have seen how their friends are treated by the police and as a result, they are distrustful of law enforcement. Conversely, I tend to trust the cops, because I’m white and grew up in the Southeast. We’ve had many interesting discussions on our differences of perception; over time I’ve come to realize that I’ve lived a very sheltered life in this respect.

We have a crisis of confidence in the USA today, one that undermines our system of laws. People of color believe that they are harassed unfairly by police, that they are arrested more often than white peers, that they are convicted more often and spend more time in prison than white peers. In states that permit the death penalty, they are executed far more often than white peers. In short, many African Americans believe that the entire system of justice is geared to treat them unfairly and that they cannot expect justice from it.

One could write this off as paranoia, except that the statistics bear it out. In “Fourteen Examples of Racism in Criminal Justice System” Bill Quigley has assembled a horrifying list of examples of studies which conclude that the US criminal justice system treats people of color unfairly. While African Americans are only 13% of the US population, they comprise 37% of those arrested for drug offenses, even though studies have shown that they engage in drug offenses at rates comparable to the white majority. That’s just the first item on his list – click the link and read the rest of it.

So when an unarmed African American youth is shot dead in the street by a white police officer in broad daylight, it should not surprise us at all that his family and many others believe that there might be something amiss. Given that his is the latest in a string of highly publicized deaths of unarmed young men of color, it should not surprise us that many people are angry and demand justice. And now that a grand jury has returned from its deliberations behind closed doors with no indictment, it should not surprise us that parts of this nation are overwhelmed with anger and grief.

Judaism teaches us that justice is an essential value. Justice is not only punishment meted out to the wrongdoer; it is also the assurance that the innocent will not be punished. Justice is even-handed towards all classes of people: “You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment; you shall not favor the poor, nor favor the mighty; but in righteousness shalt you judge your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:15) Maimonides insists that judges must have stainless reputations; they must conduct themselves in such a way that not only is justice done, but so that it is seen to have been done. Appearances count: a judge or judicial process which smells fishy is a problem.

President Obama said tonight that “we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make.” In other words, he said we have to accept the verdict of our legal system. In practical terms, yes, the grand jury is over and Officer Wilson will never stand trial in a criminal court. But today’s events say loud and clear to me that we must deal with the injustices in our system, precisely because so many people distrust not only this verdict, but the entire system that produced it.

If you are unhappy with the demonstrations, if you are unhappy with today’s verdict, no matter what “side” you are on, surely we can all agree that we should have a system of justice that is truly just, to which every law-abiding person can appeal with confidence. People are out in the street because they believe they cannot trust the legal system or law enforcement. They are not crazy. Again, if you haven’t looked at the list of studies Mr. Quigley offers in his article, I beg that you do so.

The only way to improve our situation is to improve the statistics. For example:

  • We need an end to traffic stops that target black drivers. When black drivers are stopped, they should get exactly the same treatment as a white driver in the same circumstances.
  • If whites and blacks engage in drug offenses in roughly equal proportions, then arrests should also match those proportions.
  • We need to improve the public defender system and insure that every person gets a fair trial, because any individual might be innocent.
  • There should be no difference in the length of prison sentences for black and white offenders.

I am sure there are other things that need to be done, and experts who have ideas how to get there. My point is that what we have right now is not a good system of justice, because too many people believe it to be unjust. We must work towards a perception of fairness and justice by all citizens, not just certain privileged groups of citizens.

There is no quick or easy fix. “Justice, justice you shall pursue” cannot be reduced to “chase the bad guys.” Guns won’t fix it, Humvees won’t fix it, slogans won’t fix it, and riots definitely won’t fix it. What we need is a national renewal of dedication to the proposition that all men and women are created equal, that in our nation, justice is indeed for all.

 


Remembering Kennedy

November 22, 2014

Serious Steps

This is a re-post of my remembrance of President Kennedy from last year, slightly updated. I reread it earlier this week and decided that these words were still the right words, given the state of the news and the nation right now.

It’s 51 years today since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy shocked us all. Like everyone else alive that day, I remember it and the following days in Technicolor.

I started to write a different post today, but in researching a detail, I learned about a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy to Chairman Nikita Kruschchev, written during her last night in the White House, after the assassination:

So now, in one of the last nights I will spend in the White House, in one of the last letters I will write on this paper at the White House, I would like to write you my message.

I send it only because I know how much my husband cared about peace, and how the relation between you and him was central to this care in his mind. He used to quote your words in some of his speeches-”In the next war the survivors will envy the dead.”

You and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up. You respected each other and could deal with each other. I know that President Johnson will make every effort to establish the same relationship with you…

The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones.

While big men know the needs for self-control and restraint—little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride. If only in the future the big men can continue to make the little ones sit down and talk, before they start to fight.

In those days, the big worry was nuclear war: that “WWIII” would start, and we’d nuke ourselves to death. That never happened, but the underlying problem – the problem of people using violence when words would better serve – is with us still. What strikes me in Mrs. Kennedy’s letter is the notion of “big men” knowing the need for self-control, and “little men” being driven by fear and pride. The “big men” she wrote about were on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain but they managed to keep us out of a hot war. The “little men,” then as now (and believe me, they come in both genders, then and now) like to talk about what the other side “deserves” and don’t stop to think what the world will look like the day after their wishes come true.

Jewish tradition calls upon us all to be “big,” to see beyond our passions and our fear. In this age of the Internet, each of us has power beyond imagining to influence the opinions and actions of others. The power of words, always huge, has gone nuclear. So let us watch our metaphors, let us mind our casual rhetoric that runs to hyperbole: so-and-so’s a Nazi, so-and-so “doesn’t deserve to live.” In a country where every disturbed person has access to a gun, let’s stop spreading rumors that we are pretty sure are as good as true.

My parents disagreed mightily with almost everything President Kennedy did or stood for, but they never once suggested that his death was a good thing.  When I read what some people publish today in public places about anyone they see as a threat to themselves, I tremble. Violent rhetoric may be legal, but it is still violence, and it is too easily translated into violent action by someone too simple or mentally unstable to understand that it was “only rhetoric.”

Instead of running off at the keyboard, let’s all work, soberly, consciously, for a day when every person, large and small

… shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)


Insight from Depression Comix

November 21, 2014

rabbiadar:

As a fellow blogger wrote, “If only it were so simple…”

Depending on the kind of mental illness and its severity, it might be like the cartoon below: feel the storm coming and hunker down. But there are other possibilities:

— Feeling the storm coming, and work frantically to batten down the hatches with the meds at hand before chaos…

— No warning, just the storm arrives, and there is nothing in the larder, no time to cancel, just SPLAT and then aftermath for a while…

— Or the storm arrives and passes…. and you wake up with your life in disarray, the house in need of Crime Scene Cleaners, your bank account empty and half your friends furious for mysterious reasons.

I know folks for whom each of those scenarios has happened. So if you have a friend with mental illness, be kind. If you are one of us, know that you aren’t alone, even if it feels like it. (And thanks, comic artist, for a great cartoon!)

Originally posted on depression comix (WP.com):

depcom.212.col.400px

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Read at depression comix at http://wp.me/s3zYhM-212

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