Category Archives: Tzedakah

Toward Shabbat Solidarity with Gaza

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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

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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

Jelly

Canned Vegetables: 2

Juice: Canned Concentrate, if possible

Pasta Sauce or Canned Tomatoes

Soup: 2 cans + Ramen or Dried Soup

Pasta

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

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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

AmeriCares

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…