L’Shanah Tovah – My Hope for 5778

Image: A ripening pomegranate still on the bush. (Photo: niritman/pixabay)

The new Jewish year of 5778 begins at sundown tonight.

It is customary to begin a new year – any new year – with hope and celebration.

I always think, on the new year, of something I once heard Rabbi Arthur Green teach: “For contemporary Jews, Rosh Hashanah is a lifecycle celebration. We arrive at that day and say, ‘I’m still alive.'”

But for many of the living this Rosh Hashanah, it’s a grim new year.

For people in the Caribbean, for people in Florida, for people in Texas and Louisiana, for people in Mexico, the new year begins with sorrows and difficulties. For some it begins with unimaginable grief.

For people with pre-existing illness, for people with disabilities, for people who may lose their healthcare or their children’s healthcare, this new year begins with a sword hanging over them. An evil bill is up for a vote in the Senate and it has a chance of passing.

For the Rohingya people of Myanmar and the Yazidi of Iraq, this year opens with genocide staring them in the face.

For immigrants already in the United States, and refugees everywhere, 5778 dawns with painful uncertainty.

For the people of the island nation of Kiribati, there is painful certainty: today climate change is drowning their entire country.

So what can we do?

A line in the High Holy Day prayers teaches us:

Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah avert the severe decree.”

This is not a magic formula for manipulating God or fate. This is a blueprint for alleviating suffering and making the world better.

TESHUVAHTeshuvah means “turning.” It’s the Jewish word for repentance. Good people sin not because they are evil monsters but because they fail to understand how their actions or words impact others. We must put down our defensiveness and self-interest for a few moments and study the wrongs of our world. We need to study what Torah teaches us about each of them. Then teshuvah requires that we seek a plan of action to right those wrongs.

TEFILLAH – We usually translate tefillah as prayer. Clever Hebrew scholars will tell you that it is a reflexive form that actually means something like “self-reproach.” But let’s not complicate things: tefillah is speech. If we wish to “avert the severe decree” we must become strategic in our speech. We must use our voices for good: we must appeal to our lawmakers and we must tell the truth. What we must NOT do is use our speech to puff ourselves up, to be “clever” to make points, to stir up hatred for hatred’s sake. Sometimes this is a fine line to walk, but if we want to make the world better, we must control our own speech.

TZEDAKAH – The common translation is “charity.” But it is actually a very precise word that has its roots in “justice.” Tzedakah is money given for the relief of suffering or need. It is not “goods in kind” and it is not “volunteering.” The tzedakah that changes the world is an attitude about money that admits that whatever is in my bank account is there because I have been fortunate as well as hard-working. (Face it, there are plenty of hardworking people who have little or nothing.) The spirit of tzedakah is a willingness to share whatever good fortune I have with those who have less. For the very poor, that may be a penny. For the very rich, it may be a fortune. And it may take many forms, all of them money: it may be in charitable giving, or the portion of taxes that goes to provide services to the poor, or in the support of relatives in difficulty. It may be the willingness to forego unfair profit that would burden the poor. No Jew is exempt from the commandment of tzedakah. No one, Jewish or not, is “undeserving” of tzedakah if they are suffering or in need.

Teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah: if we want to heal this world, we must become aware of wrongs and resolve to right them. We must speak the truth, and only the truth in whatever way we think will actually make things better. We must be willing to share what we have with others.

This is how we will avert a future of suffering.

And this is my hope for 5778: that enough people will be willing to do these things that some suffering will be averted and the world will be better.

May this new year be a shanah tovah, a good year. Amen.

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Purim’s Coming!

Image: Three Jews celebrating Purim: a Cubs fan, a very silly rabbi, and a cowboy. Photo by Linda Burnett.

At last! Rosh Chodesh Adar Bet arrives at sundown on Wednesday, March 9!

In a leap year, Adar Aleph is the “added in” month, so we have to wait a little longer for Purim. Purim this year (2016) will begin at sundown on Wednesday, March 23, aka 14 Adar Bet, 5776.

Two weeks is not too early to begin planning for Purim. Mitzvot require planning! Some things to do–  follow the links for more information on each mitzvah:

  1. Plan our tzedakah to feed the poor. (A Purim mitzvah)
  2. Plan our mishloach manot, gifts of food for friends, aka Purim goody bags.
  3. Plan our festive meal (yes, another Purim mitzvah!)
  4. Plan where we will hear the megillah [Scroll of Esther] If you want to hear the whole scroll chanted, it is wise to phone ahead. Some synagogues have only a Purim shpiel.
  5. Plan costumes for yourself and your family! (Not a mitzvah, but still fun.)

Also, while officially we don’t begin preparation for Passover until after Purim, in reality many Jews begin the Passover prep before they put on their masks. If you want to start thinking about that process, I recommend taking a look at Cleaning for Passover: Begin in EgyptIt’s a guide especially for those who have never kept Passover before, or who find the prospect of cleaning for Passover overwhelming.

Shake off those winter blues, and get ready: Purim’s coming!

Aid to Refugees: How We Can Help

Looking for meaningful ways to alleviate the suffering you see on the news? It is a longtime Jewish custom to give tzedakah [money for the relief of sufferers and to promote justice] before every holiday. As you make your other High Holy Day plans, don’t forget to give tzedakah!

This summer we have been inundated with terrible photographs and stories about the massive movement of refugees out of Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, fleeing the violence of war. Here are three organizations that bring considerable expertise to their work with refugees:

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) was founded in the United States in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. Today they aid refugees of all backgrounds all over the world with legal assistance, psychosocial care, and job assistance, with special sensitivity to the vulnerability of women, children, and LGBT persons. If you are looking for a way to help those fleeing the violence in Syria, this is one organization that has been doing this work for quite a while now. They are experienced, in place, and have an excellent track record of using donated funds wisely.

In the UK, World Jewish Relief has been working on relief for Syrian refugees since 2013. World Jewish Relief has made an appeal for funding for their operation providing food, shelter, medicine and hygiene kits to refugees in Turkey, Bulgaria or Greece. This aid is not limited to Jews, but is available to all refugees.

ISRAid is an NGO (non-governmental organization) based in Israel that responds to emergencies around the globe. They have two current projects that touch on the situation of refugees: first is a relief team assisting the refugees pouring into Europe, the second is a project assisting displaced people fleeing ISIL/ISIS in Iraq. According to the Jerusalem Post:

IsraAID has been actively responding to the needs of Syrian refugees and their host countries for over two years now, focusing on Jordan, Iraq, and Bulgaria. Ranging from emergency aid distributions to pinpointed trauma support and prevention training for host country government and non-government professionals, the organization is drawing on its expertise and experience in the management of crises triggered by refugees, to help others.

(Update): I have just learned of another Israeli initiative. The Shalom Hartman Institute, a pluralistic center for Jewish learning in Jerusalem, is launching the following center to aid children of African refugees in Israel (quotation from their materials):

The Hartman Institute has decided to establish a Day Care and Learning Center in Tel Aviv for children of African refugees aged 3-6. The Center will be launched in collaboration with the Elifelet organization, our hosts last summer, which cares for more than 600 children and infants. Three- to six-year-olds are the age group that Elifelet professionals have identified as being at the greatest risk. These children are released from their day care environments at 1:30 every afternoon and have nowhere to go and no one to watch over or care for them, until their parents return home from work in the evening.

Elifelet personnel will oversee the professional staff and educational programming at the Hartman-sponsored Center. The Hartman Institute community will provide the financial resources and the backbone of the Center’s volunteer infrastructure, which will include our high school and gap-year students, administrative staff, teaching and research faculty, and the parents of our students. The center will function from 1:30–6:30 pm daily, and will provide children with a safe, caring, and nurturing environment that will offer nutritious meals, counseling, basic learning skills classes, and a game center.

Finally, if you are thinking, “the little bit I could give will not make a difference,” please reconsider. For one thing, your small donation combines with other donations to make a big difference. Maimonides taught that we all have a responsibility to give tzedakah, even if we can only give a minuscule amount. If we each give according to our means, we can relieve a great deal of suffering.

Finally, you can also help by passing this information to others on your social networks. The internet is rife with hand-wringing and pontification; this is an opportunity to actually help. Whether you pass along a link to this article, or publicize the work of a particular organization, you will contribute to the quality of online discussion by offering people a way to do something.

The image with this post is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The owner is Haeferl.

“The Highest Form of Jewish Giving” might be a surprise.

If you bring up the subject of tzedakah, money given for charity, many Jews will tell you two things:

1. Tzedakah is from the same Hebrew root as “justice.”  and

2. Maimonides taught a ladder of tzedakah, with making a loan as the highest form of tzedakah.

The first is true, the second is missing some bits.

1. Tzedakah is indeed from the Hebrew root associated with justice: tzadee, dalet, kuf.   The Hebrew for justice is tzedek.

2. Maimonides teaches us a hierarchy of virtue in giving tzedakah, from least to greatest:

  1. Giving begrudgingly
  2. Giving less than you should, but giving it cheerfully.
  3. Giving after being asked
  4. Giving before being asked
  5. Giving when you do not know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient knows your identity
  6. Giving when you know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient does not know your identity
  7. Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity
  8. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant

Adapted from Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7-14

“Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant” is a far cry from “the highest form of charity is a loan.” Maimonides specifies, first of all, that he refers to an interest-free loan or a money gift to enable a person to start a business. Providing an interest-free loan or a gift for education or training might also qualify. The Talmud (Shabbat 63) suggests that an interest-free loan is preferable because it is more sensitive to the dignity of the recipient. However, the highest form of tzedakah, according to Maimonides, is to form a business partnership with the intended recipient, which means taking on risks and serving as an ongoing partner in the venture. It isn’t for the faint of heart, and should not be undertaken lightly. We are forbidden to give tzedakah beyond our means.

There’s a third point about tzedakah that gets less press. Maimonides teaches that when we select a recipient for a share from our limited resources, we should look first nearby and for the most in distress. “Nearness” might mean physical nearness (give to the food bank in your own county before you give to the one far away) or it might mean familial nearness, so help for the cousin who can’t make rent takes precedence over a non-relative, or an organization that will survive without our gift. (I can imagine development directors groaning at this one, but that’s what the Rambam says, folks.)

Maimonides warns, like a good investment advisor, against putting all of one’s tzedakah funds in one place: figure out how much is possible, then divide the funds between two or more recipients. So even if hapless Cousin Susie could absorb all one’s tzedakah, at least a bit should go elsewhere. Also (returning to that principle of helping people be self-sufficient) it may be best to help Cousin Susie get out of her current situation by assisting her in making terms with creditors, or moving into more affordable housing, or whatever will contribute to a long term fix.

For a more complete explanation of Maimonides on giving, I recommend this article online or the book from which it is excerpted, The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money, by Dr. Meir Tamari. Dr. Tamari is both a rabbi and an economist, serving for many years as the Chief Economist of the Bank of Israel.

In an era of growing income inequality it can be overwhelming to make decisions about tzedakah. I appreciate that our forebears thought a lot about this question and left us a framework for decision making.

The Corners of My Field

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not completely reap the corners of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Eternal am your God. – Leviticus 23:22 (Parashat Emor)

It looks so simple, on the surface: when you gather the harvest, leave some for the poor. Why, then, do we need an entire tractate of the Talmud to talk about it, and why does Maimonides devote an entire volume of the Mishneh Torah to it?

The commandment may be simple, but human nature is not. The minute people heard “leave the corners, leave the gleanings” the questions began: how much of the corners? On every field of any size? And what exactly are gleanings? What if a worker drops an entire basket of produce? What if you don’t have a field, but a silver smithy? What if the harvest is really bad that year? What about… on and on.

There are also questions about the recipients: who gets the gleanings? Who are the poor? Who is the stranger? Why do they deserve free stuff?

Actually, that last question is a ringer. The rabbis addressed the question of fraud but they don’t question that a poor person deserves food to eat. Indeed, Maimonides says that while we can question a beggar’s request for money, if a person asks for food, if they say they are hungry, the observant Jew has to give, or at the very least, speak kindly when they say a regretful “no.”

I live in a part of the country where I am asked for money on the street on a regular basis. I have a son who trained as a social worker who feels very strongly that one should not give street people money. I have a colleague who has made a very cogent argument for giving money to people who ask for it on the street. And I hear Maimonides’ words scolding me when I pass someone and say, “No, I’m sorry, not today.”

I resolve my dilemma by giving as much cash as I can to my local food bank. Canned goods are nice, but the truth is they can do a lot more with cash. They can buy what people actually need as opposed to our fantasies of what they need. They can buy at steep discounts, too. My “harvest” doesn’t involve corners of fields or gleanings, it is in my checkbook, and so I give what I can.

There are a growing number of poor families and individuals in the United States. The recovery from the Great Recession has left many behind.  We live in a cruel economy at the moment, and funds for food stamps have been cut again and again. It is up to us to dig deep and give to organizations that feed hungry people. Our tradition demands no less.

Don’t Forget this Purim Mitzvah!

will_work_for_food3gPurim’s coming! Don’t forget: one of the four main mitzvot of Purim is a gift to feed the poor.

In its strictest interpretation, that’s a gift to make sure that poor Jews can celebrate the holiday. You can fulfill that mitzvah, feeding Jews, by a couple of routes:

MAZON is a Jewish organization that feeds people in both North America and in Israel. They do not turn anyone away, but they are primarily focused on Jewish food insecurity.

Alternatively, you can give money to your rabbi’s discretionary fund. Every congregation has members who are living with food insecurity, usually silently. The rabbi sometimes becomes aware of these situations and the discretionary fund can help buy groceries. A rabbi’s discretionary fund is not a private slush fund for expenses. Those funds have to be spent on things that preserve the deductible status of the original gift (in the USA.)

However, we are taught by our tradition to feed ALL hungry people, not just Jews. Some other options:

  • Donate cash or goods to your local food pantry or food bank.
  • Persuade others to give to your local food bank.

This is different from the usual “tzedakah before a holiday” thing, although that’s certainly good on its own. This is a particular part of Purim observance.  Partly this makes sure all can celebrate the holiday, but also look at the calendar: this holiday comes at what can be a brutal time of year for people with food insecurity. It’s cold and wet in many locations, and has been for months. Nutrition affects people’s resistance to colds and flu. Many kinds of produce are more expensive because of the season, too.

The Hebrew name for these Purim gifts is Matanot L’Evyonim (mah-ta-NOTE l’ev-yon-EEM): Gifts to the Poor. Purim is actually the traditional Jewish gift-giving holiday: we give gifts to the poor, and food gifts to friends.

The root of tzedakah (charity) is tzedek, justice. It is unfair that so many are hungry. In my own home state of California, 15% of households – that’s over 2 million people! – are currently suffering with food insecurity. There are parents going hungry to feed their children and children going hungry because there isn’t enough to go around. This is a shanda (scandal.)

Before we put on our festive masks, let’s each choose a place to send what we can!

Giving Tuesday, Giving Tzedakah

There are many opportunities to give tzedakah.
There are many opportunities to give tzedakah.

“Giving Tuesday:” It’s a new tradition, started recently, and while I am glad that people are giving charity, it seems to me that the timing is backwards. We have 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 arrives  every Friday night. Whether or not you give on Giving Tuesday, I invite you to join me in this ancient spiritual practice of regular tzedakah.