Sunday, May 16, 2010

teaching tzedakah

"Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the L-rd."
Leviticus (Vayikra 23:16)

With Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks in Leviticus 23, (very informative article on Shavuot: approaching, many people all over the world are thinking about giving tzedakah (referring to charity, but translated from the Hebrew as "justice" or "righteousness")

This is a beautiful time of year to also teach our children the importance of tzedakah. To teach it, however, we must first make it a vital part of our lives, because children learn what they live. Having a family tzedakah box inside your home is a great place to start, having a common goal of how your spare change could be used to bless someone else's life. I recently came across a "Wonder Pets" family charity bank on NickJr.'s website, and since my daughter loves the show, I'm going to make one. But we already have several places for our change (which is the problem), but the boxes never fill up because the change is spread too thin! Nevertheless, even an 18-month old can put quarters into a bank slot, and she loves to do it! Other forms of tzedakah don't require money banks at all. We can write checks, give online, give cash, give food, clothes, volunteer our time, etc. etc. If we make giving a part of our lives (and do it joyfully), then our children will learn to do the same.

I found this article to be very helpful in explaining a Jewish understanding of tzedakah, so I pasted it in its entirety. Find the original at: "Anyone who has ever studied another language knows that there are certain ideas and concepts that can only be understood in their original language. In Jewish tradition, too, there are values embedded in its very language of keywords and phrases that cannot always be adequately translated or explained. The Hebrew word tzedakah is one example.
Although often translated as “charity,” tzedakah is not equivalent to charity. Rather, its root means “justice.” Charity comes from the Latin word caritas, which means “love.” The concept of charity in English is considered voluntary because it comes from the heart. In Christianity, charity is something which people give when their hearts move them.
In contrast, tzedakah/justice is a biblical and rabbinic concept that embodies the idea that Jews are obligated to pursue social and economic justice. Jews must help the oppressed members of society as well as those in financial straits not because they want to, but because they are required to do so as one way of serving G-d, performing G-d’s commandments, and even acting like G-d. (Indeed, in the biblical text the word “tzedakah” is usually used as an expression of

G-d’s own righteousness and justice—and human beings are commanded to pursue tzedek (a closely related word), social justice.) Tzedakah is a way of looking at the world and understanding the human role in creating a more perfect world—and by doing so, imitating qualities of the Divine.
The giving of tzedakah is even equated with a spiritually righteous and expiating act of religious significance. Rabbi Akiba, one of the greatest rabbis from the time of the Talmud, once stated that when the ancient Temple in Jerusalem used to stand, the altar, upon which animal sacrifices were made, used to atone for the sins of the people of Israel. But since the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE by the Romans, Rabbi Akiba claimed that now a person’s dining table atones for each person's sins. How so? By being able to invite needy guests home and to provide them with food.
The talmudic rabbis felt strongly about the spiritual significance of tzedakah, claiming that when one practices tzedakah and justice, it is as though he or she had filled the world with lovingkindness. One rabbinic teaching states that when a beggar stands before you asking for alms, you should know that the holy presence of G-d stands by the beggar’s side
Tzedakah is closely related to gemilut chasadim, which involves actions and commitment beyond mere financial gifts. It can mean donating one’s time and energy to helping others, such as reading for the blind, visiting in a hospital, or volunteering in a food bank. The Jewish tradition requires us to give something of ours, money and time, to those in need. It also recognizes that throughout our lives we will all be in need at various times, of financial assistance or simply of care throughout life’s challenges, and that providing such assistance is required of individuals and communities. In the theology of Judaism, all of our possessions, and even the time we are allotted on earth, are but a loan from the Creator. Therefore, when we engage in the commandment and duty of tzedakah (and the related category of gemilut chasadim), we are securing a more equitable distribution of G-d's gifts to humanity."

This same website also had an article on how to teach children about tzedakah, which is at:

In conclusion, I think the best way to teach children how to give is to show them. If they don't see you giving, then they won't know that you are. Getting them involved in tzedakah projects as a family is crucial to their understanding of tzedakah. As my daughter gets older, I make sure that she "gives gifts" to others, which consists right now of her handing them the gift, but as she gets older, she will be able to give gifts of her own. Young children can "pick out" gifts, can hand money to homeless people, can put a donation into a tzedakah box, can help pack a box that is being sent overseas, can volunteer their time, can make people smile, etc.... so never underestimate the power of a child to give. In fact, it is usually children who teach us adults how to give! And they do it cheerfully, as we are told to do in 2 Corinthians 9:7.

In searching for ways that a small child can be involved in giving, I came across the Pajama Program/The Great Sprout tuck-in (if you watch Sprout on demand, you've heard of it!), which donates new pajamas and books to children in need, many waiting to be adopted. A toddler can certainly help pick out a pair of jammies and a book to give away, and for older children there is a "pajama party" to collect the donations and send them in. All the info can be found here: This is just one simple way to teach children to give, but more importantly, they need to see us give... and not just money, of course. Children see and hear everything.... how we spend our time, how we treat other people, how we talk to people, and how we give of ourselves to others, and that is what they will imitate.

In this season of special offerings and gifts (and celebrating the beautiful gift of the Torah that G-d gave us, both the Written and the Living Torah), let us also give... give to G-d, give to others, and give our children an understanding that tzedakah is not something we do every once in a while to feel good about ourselves, but it's a way of life.

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