Category Archives: Tzedakah

Toward Shabbat Solidarity with Gaza


Tzedakah saves from death. (Proverbs 10:2)

For religious Jews, Friday is typically devoted to spiritual and practical preparation for the Sabbath. Those who are traditionally observant will spend the morning and afternoon doing their shopping, housecleaning and cooking for Shabbat before sundown. Before Shabbat worship, there is a preliminary service known as Kabbalat Shabbat: a series of Psalms and prayers of welcome that serve as a spiritual precursor to the onset of the Jewish Sabbath. As any Shabbat observant Jew will attest, the sense of spiritual preparation and anticipation that takes place on Friday is deeply imbedded in the sacred rhythm of the Jewish week.

Speaking personally, this sacred rhythm has been disrupted – perhaps even profaned – for me for almost a year now. That is because every Friday afternoon, my news feed is regularly filled with reports of Palestinian civilians killed and maimed by the Israeli military during the protests taking place during the Great March of Return.

Every Erev Shabbat, as I prepare for the most sacred day of the week, I invariably learn that Gazans – including young adults and children – have been shot down by Israeli bullets as they protest hundreds of meters from the Gaza border fences. As of January 2019, Israeli soldiers have killed over 250 people and injured 23,000. Among the injured, many are grievously wounded; the Washington Post recently reported that doctors in Gaza are often unable to deal with such traumatic injuries because  Israel’s crushing blockade has left hospitals “overwhelmed and understaffed.”

Of course there is rarely a mention of these weekly events in the mainstream media – and when there is, news reports often treat the Palestinian demonstrators as the instigators of “violent clashes.” For its part, the Jewish communal establishment greets these crimes with silence at best and justification at worst – as if it is perfectly justifiable to regularly shoot down unarmed protesters with live gunfire.

I sometimes wonder if there are other Jews out there like me, whose personal preparation for Shabbat is regularly violated by the events transpiring every Friday afternoon along the Gaza border. Who approach Shabbat with an increasing sense of dread, often followed by anguish at the news of Gazans killed and injured by a military that acts in the name of the Jewish people. Who ask: how can we possibly prepare for this sacred weekly occasion as a Jewish army shoots down unarmed civilians for their “crime” of protesting for their human rights?

I have to believe there are other Jews for whom these weekly massacres at the Gaza border represent not only a human rights concern by an inherently spiritual violation and a profound moral/religious challenge. I would go as far as to say it is an aveirah – a religious transgression – for Jews to greet Shabbat without some kind of meaningful acknowledgement of what has been transpiring every week at the Gaza border.

What might this acknowledgement look like? A few thoughts occur to me: Since mourning rituals are traditionally lifted on Shabbat, we might pause before Shabbat candle lighting and mention the names of those who may have been killed or wounded in that week’s protest. Another idea: as it is traditional to give tzedekah before Friday night candle lighting by placing coins in a pushke – a tzedakah collection box – we could make giving tzedakah to a Gazan relief organization part of our weekly preparation for Shabbat. Such organizations might include the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA), Doctors with Borders, or American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA).

In the Talmud, there is a famous rabbinic discussion of the line from Proverbs, “Tzedakah saves from death.” According to the plainest meaning of this verse, this means simply that charity has the very real potential to save lives. This kind of attitude, however, represents the noblesse oblige approach to giving: i.e., that those who have more have the responsibility to give to those who are less fortunate than they.

Such a view betrays the very meaning of the word “tzedakah,” which comes from the Hebrew root meaning “justice.” Indeed, if tzedakah has the force of justice behind it, then it cannot simply be left to the whims and choices of those who might be feeling “charitable.” It is rather, an obligation for all people to right the wrongs that abound in our world. All the more so in the case of Gaza, which is not so much humanitarian crisis as an injustice created by one powerful nation state that seeks to control a population by blockading it inside a virtual open air prison.

I have no illusions that giving tzedakah at the onset of Shabbat will on its own save the people of Gaza. And I do not want to endorse it as a kind of “indulgence” to assuage the guilt of those who don’t want to enter into Shabbat burdened by the thought of this terrible and ongoing human tragedy. Rather, I’m suggesting this new weekly practice as a way to do the work of justice as a regular discipline – and to make our final act of the week an act of solidarity with a people who are suffering from injustice committed by those purporting to be acting in our name.

So here’s my suggestion: let’s make justice for Gaza part of our weekly regimen as we prepare for Shabbat. May this act of conscience contribute all the more to Kedushat Hayom (“the holiness of the day”). And may we emerge from this day of renewal that much more inspired to fight for a world in which justice is extended to all who dwell upon it.

The Season of our Sustenance: A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah

As I sat down to write my sermons this New Year, I somehow found myself returning to the theme of “sustainability.”  Click below for my remarks on Erev Rosh Hashanah:

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Consuming with Conscience

2shoppers1.jpgInterested in knowing more about the business practices of the products you consume? I recently came across Better World Shopper – a great website that grades more than 1.000 of the world’s largest companies’ products based on their adherence to five major categories: Human Rights, the Environment, Animal Protection, Community Involvement, and Social Justice.

Better World Shopper describes it’s mission this way:

The average American family spends around $18,000 each year on goods and services. Think of it as casting 18,000 votes every year for the kind of world you want to live in. Use this site to take back your power.

Their data might not surprise you, but I was very impressed by the thoroughness of their research and the ease with which you can call up results. For the record, here is their Ten Best/Ten Worst List:

The Ten Best Companies:

Seventh Generation, Patagonia, American Apparel, Eden Foods, Tom’s of Maine, Ben and Jerry’s, Working Assets, Clif Bar, Stonyfield Farms, Aveda

The Ten Worst Companies:

Exxon Mobil, Altria (Philip Morris), Wal-Mart, Chevron Texaco, Pfizer, Nestle, Tyson Foods, General Electric, Archer Daniels Midland, General Motors

A Shout Out for Food Banks


While you’re thinking about end-of the-year tzedakah, you should also think about helping out your local food bank. According to news reports, rising food and energy costs, together with reduced help from the federal government, have created growing shortages for food pantries nationwide. (In a particularly perverse economic twist, a relatively healthy agricultural economy is contributing to this shortfall as there is less surplus available for food banks to purchase.) For further reading, here is a recent article from the New York Times, and another from the Chicago Tribune.

Next time you’re out shopping, why not pick up some extra food items and swing them by your local food bank? Obviously individual donations themselves will not overcome the shortfall, but I do believe every gesture makes a difference (especially if we encourage others to donate as well). If you aren’t sure about what to buy, here is what is commonly considered “one standard allotment” for a family of six or less:

Canned Meat: Meat Meal or Pasta Meal, Tuna or other Canned Fish

Beans: 1 Dry, 1 Canned

Canned Fruit: 1

Peanut butter


Canned Vegetables: 2

Juice: Canned Concentrate, if possible

Pasta Sauce or Canned Tomatoes

Soup: 2 cans + Ramen or Dried Soup


Macaroni and Cheese

Breakfast Cereal or Oatmeal/Grits

Rice or Potatoes

Frozen/Refrigerated Food: Bread, Meat (1 per standard allotment), Produce, Milk

PS: Though not in a “standard allotment,” food pantries often need diapers too.

PPS: Thanks to my friend, journalist Emily Hauser for raising my awareness of this one…

Cyclone Sidr Relief


From today’s New York Times:

The number of people left dead after the powerful cyclone that swept through Bangladesh on Thursday rose to more than 3,100 yesterday, the government said. The United Nations estimated that a million people had been left homeless, many of them in remote areas without predictable food supplies.

The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society warned Sunday that the number of dead could conceivably be 5,000 to 10,000, and the United Nations World Food Program said yesterday that it would not be surprised by such a tally.

To contribute to Cyclone Sidr relief efforts, contact:

American Red Cross


Lutheran World Relief

Save the Children

Global Giving

If you are in need of sources for holiday gift giving or end-of-the year tzedakah, I’m recommending GlobalGiving– a terrific resource that describes itself as the eBay of online giving. Their concept is brilliant in its simplicity: over 450 pre-screened worldwide grassroots charity projects post their causes on their website. Givers can research causes by topic or geographic location and make a direct tax-deductible donation. GlobalGiving ensures that 85-90% of each donation is on-the-ground within 60 days and has an immediate impact. They also send out regular updates to givers to inform them what a difference their gifts are making and to demonstrate the results that have been achieved. (Click on the YouTube clip above for a quick GlobalGiving tutorial.)

Just scrolling through the NGOs listed on the site is an inspiration in itself – incredible organizations doing important, critical work in the areas of Human Rights, HIV/AIDS, the environment, Sustainability, Gender Equality, etc. I never fail to be amazed by the sheer number of good people doing great work in the world…

The Torah of Fair Trade

fair-trade.jpg“When you buy or sell…to your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another.” — Leviticus 25:13

This week’s Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25-27), contains numerous commandments to the Israelites to create a society based on principles of economic equity: the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, the equitable redemption of land, fair interest rates, the “tax scale” for funding the sanctuary, etc.

It is particularly appropriate that this parasha should coincide with World Fair Trade Day (May 12) – the global day in which we celebrate the efforts to create a more equitable world economy. Fair Trade empowers farmers and farm workers to lift themselves out of poverty by investing in their farms and communities, protecting the environment, and developing the business skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace. In the spirit of Shabbat Behar-Bechukotai and World Fair Trade Day, I encourage you to learn more about how you can support the global Fair Trade Movement.

Chazak, Chazak, Ve’nitchazek! Strength, strength, and may we find the means to strengthen one another…

Campaign Spending and Your Tzedakah Dollars

24778445.jpgOne of the most critical factors in giving tzedakah is the due diligence required to know that the funds we donate are used effectively and well. This concern was famously highlighted by Moses Maimonidies in his classic presentation on the laws of tzedakah:

We are required to take more care about the commandment of tzedakah…than for any other positive commandment. (Hilchot Matnot Ani’im 10:1)

I’ve been thinking about this caution as we read increasing reports about the staggering amounts of money currently being raised in the 2008 presidential campaign. After several months of fund-raising, the candidates for president have already raised more than $150 million. By most reports, this campaign will be the first to top the $1 billion mark – certainly a jaw dropping sum by any objective standard.

For its part, the media seems obsessed with the fund-raising efforts of candidates like Obama and Clinton. But given the endless media analysis and handicapping (not to mention the monstrous levels of cash at stake) it’s a shame that few are addressing whether or not donating directly to campaigns is truly an effective form of charitable giving.

To this end, I refer you to a piece written by Trent Stamp, Executive Director of Charity Navigator. Though it was written during the 2004 campaign, Stamp’s provocative and compelling arguments are even more cogent this time around:

Choosing Charities over Canididates

by Trent Stamp
Executive Director, Charity Navigator

March 1, 2004

If you are one of the millions of Americans considering supporting a political candidate with your hard-earned dollars this year, I hope you have a good reason. If your goal is to make our country better, to spend your money wisely, or to serve your own self-interests, the odds are that you would be much better off supporting one of America’s nearly one million charities. For several reasons, supporting a charitable organization is a much better idea than supporting a political candidate.

Charities are more efficient: A charity spending 25% of its budget on administrative costs, fundraising, and media is considered about average in the sector. The rest is used toward achieving its goals. A candidate, however, spends every last dime of yours on overhead, fundraising, and media. This is the nature of political campaigns. There’s nothing left at the end.

Charities are more accountable: The Internal Revenue Service (and to a fuller extent, Charity Navigator) scrutinizes the financial practices of every large non-profit in the country to make sure its funding is spent wisely and appropriately. The warp speed of political campaigns precludes any serious scrutiny of how the public’s dollars are being allocated. All we really know is how much they raised, and how much they have left. Where it actually went is anyone’s guess.

Charities are more effective: Charities increasingly have stepped in to provide programs our government once sought to deliver. Because of charities, our wetlands are being preserved, many of our homeless have shelter, hungry children are being fed, diseases are being cured, and more animals are safe. Our country is a better place because of charities. Can we say the same thing about our elected officials?

You are already paying for the candidates: From the presidential race down to your local city council races, most elections are financed with large chunks of “matching” funds comprised of taxpayer money. Like it or not, you’re already paying for these elections. You’ve paid once. Have you paid for a charity yet in the same manner? Not likely. Charities are being red-lined nationwide as budgets are axed at the local, state, and federal governmental levels. But even with the worst of financial crises — as after-school programs and food for the poor are being cut — matching funds for elections are safe. Why? Because those that benefit from the programs, the elected officials, are the ones who vote on those budgets.

Charities won’t flip-flop on you: Are you worried about the environment? You should be. But how do you know that your candidate, when elected, will care as much about the issue as they claim they do today? How do you know they won’t take the corporate money and decide the issue is a little more “complex” than they originally thought? You don’t. But what are the chances that the large environmental charity you could be supporting will make the same flip-flop? There is none, of course. They will have had a career, and an organization, built out of supporting that issue. They’re not beholden to special interests; they are the special interest. If you truly care about the issue, and not the candidate, the only one you can truly trust to work on your behalf, through thick and thin, is the charity that shares your value system.

Charities are in it for the long haul: Once the election cycle ends, the losers will go home, and the winners will celebrate the spoils. Many of the campaigns’ issues, sadly, will go back on the shelf until the next cycle begins. But for the charities–the advocates, the change-agents, and the service deliverers–the day after the election will just be another day, a day to do their jobs and try to make the world a better place. If you care more about making the world a better place than merely placing a bet on a horse in this race, the charities are a better vehicle for your funding.

Campaign deductions aren’t tax-deductible: The United States Congress recognizes a basic principle of economics in their support of charities. Charities provide a public good, and it is therefore in the interest of our entire society to support them. Accordingly, all donations from individuals are tax-deductible. Donations to candidates, however, at any level, are not tax-deductible. For your own finances, supporting a candidate is no different than buying a six-pack of beer, except you can more readily predict the results from consuming the beer.

I’m not saying that the elections of 2004 are not relevant, or that real issues don’t exist between the candidates. But they are going to hold these elections whether we support them financially or not. In 2004, vote with your ballot, not your checkbook, and save your hard-earned dollars for the people who can do the most with the money–America’s charities.

PS: If you want more in depth information on campaign spending, (how much, where it comes from, etc.) I highly recommend, the website for the Center for Responsive Politics.

Let the Edges Run Wild!

sulaw17673_2.jpgListen up all you suburbanites with your perfectly manicured lawns: it’s time to let the edges run wild!

In the week’s Torah portion Parashat Emor, we find this classic verse:

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of you field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 23:22)

This commandment is rooted in the Torah’s essential view that the land upon which we live does not ultimately belong to us. (Witness the famous opening line of Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds, the world and all its inhabitants.”) Certainly the environmental implications of this concept are undeniable – a compelling reminder that the the earth that we inhabit is not a simply resource for our unmitigated exploitation.

There are obvious socio-economic challenges presented by this value as well. We will soon read, in fact, in next week’s portion:

…the land must not be sold beyong reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. (Leviticus 25:23)

In his book, “The Edges of the Field: Lessons on the Obligations of Ownership,” Harvard law professor Joseph Singer argues that these Jewish economic values have much to teach us as contemporary Americans:

Contrary to to what some believe and others fear, the protection of property rights does not commit us to the view that gross inequality is a necessary fact of life or that individuals have no legitimate claim to lean on other people. Property is not merely an individual right, and it is not based solely on the notion of self-interest or self-reliance. It is, in fact, an intensely social institution. It implicates social relationships that combine individualism with a large amount of communal responsibility (p. 3).

It could be argued that this intricate balance between private ownership and communal responsibility is currently becoming subsumed by the conservative American ethos of “ownership society:” a cultural view that considers “personal liberty, responsibility and property” as primary and sacrosanct. In an ownership society, the sanctity of the unharvested edges has given way to an impermeable wall – where the rights of the owners are paramount and those on the other side simply left to fend for themselves.

The deeper spiritual vision presented to us by this week’s portion is one that respects edges and boundaries, but also recognizes that slavish devotion to these boundaries is ultimately dangerous and self-defeating. In essence, by leaving the edges “unharvested,” we mindfully blur the boundary between own holdings and the land beyond. A profound and challenging vision, to be sure.

Postscript: it is fascinating to note that the word “pe’ah” occurs earlier in Emor in a decidedly different context:

(The sons of Aaron) shall not shave smooth any part of their heads, or cut the side-growth of their beards (“pe’at z’kanam”) (Leviticus 21:5)

Clearly there is something going on with Emor and untrimmed edges! Could it be that pey’ot represent yet another way of expressing this unique spiritual vision? This question is of particular note since the festival of Lag B’Omer – the holiday which is celebrated in many traditional communities with the first haircut of three year old boys (a ritual known as Upsherin).

Just a few thoughts before you reach for the lawn edger (or scissors) this weekend…

A Father Kvelling

unite-for-sight-009.jpgAnd now for some serious kvelling from a proud Dad…

For his Bar Mitzvah tzedakah project last September, my son Gabe decided to raise funds for Unite for Sight, an organization that promotes optical surgeries and eye care around the world. To date he has raised over $7,000.00, which enabled an eye clinic in Tamale, Ghana to purchase a much-needed visual field machine (medical equipment that diagnoses and manages glaucoma.)

Gabe was honored this past Saturday at Unite for Sight’s annual convention at Stanford University School of Medicine. (His entourage for the occasion: his mother Hallie, and grandparents Al and Esther, Larry and Ruth – plenty of naches to go around!) That’s Gabe above with Dr. Seth Wanye, Director of the Tamale eye clinic.

Here’s what Gabe had to say upon receiving his youth volunteer award:

When I was ten years old I received an eye injury in a soccer accident. Two days later I was taken into surgery to fix a detached retina in my left eye. If I did not have this surgery, I would have gone blind in that eye. At first I was apprehensive about the surgery, but then I realized that I was in good hands and that I was lucky to have this state of the art treatment.

Two years later, when it came time for my Bar Mitzvah, and for my Social Action Project, I decided to donate money to Unite for Sight. The advanced procedure I received made me appreciate how fortunate I was to be in a wealthy area of the world. My Dad and I looked up organizations that supported eye care in developing countries, and we found Unite for Sight. I liked that Unite for Sight was able to make a difference in peoples’ daily lives.

The Torah says, “Cursed be he who misdirects a blind person on his way.” This is what I said about this line in the my Bar Mitzvah speech:

“On one hand, this could mean taking advantage of someone like a tourist that doesn’t ‘know the ropes’ in a situation. The Torah teaches that we have a responsibility to be trustworthy and help others find their desired destination.

In a more literal way, we can interpret this commandment to mean we have a responsibility to help people who suffer from the curse of blindness, especially preventable blindness.

What would it take to stop the curse of preventable blindness in developing countries? More affluent countries should realize that they have a responsibility to stop the diseases and would need to donate money for more optic surgeons and more hospitals in these parts of the world.

I don’t believe that God can curse you or bless you. I believe that some people have good fortune and some people have rotten fortune and God has nothing to do with it. You have good luck if you’re born in a wealthy part of the world and you have bad luck if you live in a poorer part of the world. Poorer people don’t deserve to be poor, they just happen to be born in countries with less resources. They are not cursed by God but they might feel that they are cursed.

Even though I don’t believe God can curse or bless people, I did learn a lesson from my portion: It is our responsibility to help the world feel less cursed. We could help the world by donating money, food, and other resources to those who need them. We could send doctors to treat preventable illnesses in other countries that need our help.”

I would like to thank Unite for Sight for this honor. I’m especially honored that I could help the people of Tamale and Dr. Wanye to purchase a visual field machine for their Eye Clinic.

Thank you very much.

You can donate to Unite for Sight by clicking here. (A donation of $50.00 can restore sight to one individual – yes, sometimes it’s that easy to make a difference in the world…)