Category Archives: Tzedakah

No Sacrifice At All…

you_talk_of_sacrifice.jpgThe book of Vayikra/Leviticus, which we begin reading this week, is almost exclusively devoted to details of the sacrificial rituals of ancient Israel. Many commentators have pointed out that there is, in fact, no one Hebrew word for “sacrifice” per se. The Torah presents many different words (e.g. olah, zevach, minchah) for various types of sacrificial offerings that function in different ways depending upon their specific purpose.

The most generic word for sacrifice is “korban,” which comes from the Hebrew root meaning “close.” The clear implication is that sacrifice was the spiritual means by which the ancient Israelites were able to feel close to God’s presence.

This, then, is the central focus of Vayikra: the ways in which sacrifice can help us effect a sense of closeness with the Divine. In this way, Vayikra makes it abundantly clear that spirituality and sacrifice are irrevocably intertwined. Only by giving up something precious and valuable could the Israelites find communion with God. To be sure, animal offerings represented a significant personal sacrifice for a community whose wealth was fundamentally tied up with their flocks and herds. Vayikra emphasizes repeatedly that only the best animals – “without blemish” – were worthy of sacrifice upon the altar. These offerings were, without question, truly sacrificial gifts.

Ever since the destruction of the Temple and the end of the formal sacrificial system, the concept of sacrifice has presented a challenge for Jewish tradition. Though the Jewish sages famously taught that prayer effectively became the functional equivalent of animal sacrifice for Jews, it is worth asking if the sacramental aspect of true sacrifice has somehow become lost to us. Indeed, what significance does korban hold for a contemporary Jewish nation that lives far, far away from the milieu we read about in Leviticus?

As contemporary Americans, we might ask ourselves a similar question: is sacrifice even an operative concept in our civic culture any more? This is a particularly critical question for a country engaged in a war that currently entering its fifth year. Witness this exchange during a recent interview between PBS’s Jim Lehrer and President Bush:

Lehrer: “Let me ask you a bottom-line question, Mr. President. If it is as important as you’ve just said – and you’ve said it many times – as all of this is, particularly the struggle in Iraq, if it’s that important to all of us and to the future of our country, if not the world, why have you not, as president of the United States, asked more Americans and more American interests to sacrifice something? The people who are now sacrificing are, you know, the volunteer military – the Army and the U.S. Marines and their families. They’re the only people who are actually sacrificing anything at this point.”

President Bush: “Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night. I mean, we’ve got a fantastic economy here in the United States, but yet, when you think about the psychology of the country, it is somewhat down because of this war.”

Beyond the war in Iraq, we Americans would do well to ask ourselves further: are we ready to sacrifice to pay higher taxes to ensure the welfare of the most vulnerable members of our society? Are we ready to make the financial sacrifices necessary to ensure universal health care in our country? Are we ready to sacrifice our increasing energy consumption to help ensure the survival of our planet?

Are we really, truly ready to open an authentic national conversation about the true meaning of collective sacrifice?

Buy Less Crap!

99672494-16a2-4ad2-8908-894bd0f0ff6b_sp.jpegIf you’re thinking of buying a Red Razr phone to fight AIDS in Africa, you might want to check out first.

As it turns out, the well-known (RED) Campaign (a “shop-to-give” charity that raises money for the Global Fund) has spent over $100 million in marketing but has raised barely a tenth of that amount for charitable ends. The Buy (LESS) Campaign was launched last week as a protest/alternative to buying over-priced Gap clothes and red Ipods. Their very clever website encourages folks to give directly to the Global Fund and other causes they solicit from the public.

There is no denying that shopping charities like the (RED) campaign tend to be patronizing appeals that pander to the “feel-good” dimensions of our consumer culture. (I’m sure I wasn’t the only cringing at news reports last October of Oprah and Bono proclaiming, “We’re shopping to save the world!” as they swept down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, adoring throngs in tow.) The (RED) campaign likes to frame itself as a new kind of mass movement that is somehow harnessing the latent power of “first world consumers.” But let’s not delude ourselves: corporations exist to make money, not to give it away.

At the end of the day, shopping charities seem to be better at consciousness-raising than fund raising per se. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the use of corporate marketing muscle to spotlight critical global crises that deserve attention. But is buying more stuff really the answer? In his blog, Charity Navigator founder Trent Stamp astutely points to the crux of the problem:

I just worry that the teens who buy the products will think that their philanthropic commitment to the less fortunate ends when they leave the store. The RED campaign can be a good start, or it can be a colossal waste of money, and it all depends on whether this edgy, innovative campaign inspires young people to be better citizens, or just gives them an excuse to feel good about themselves while they buy an overpriced item they don’t really need.

Stamp is not optimistic about the prospect and, frankly, neither am I.

Unite for Sight

eye-chart.jpgAnother brag, this one as Proud Papa…

For his Bar Mitzvah tzedakah project, my son Gabe decided to raise funds for Unite for Sight, an organization that promotes optical surgeries and eye care around the world. (Part of the inspiration for his project was personal: when he was ten, Gabe underwent emergency eye surgery to repair a detached retina that occurred during a soccer accident.)

Here’s an excerpt from Gabe’s Dvar Torah, which he gave at his Bar Mitzvah ceremony this past September:

One curse in my Torah portion especially interested me: “Cursed be he who misdirects a blind person on his way.” (Deuteronomy 27:18) 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.

Here is a shameful fact: millions of children die every year from preventable diseases. While many of us in America can afford surgeries and treatments, people in other countries are getting sick and dying from easily treatable diseases. Each year more than 10 million children die worldwide before the age of five from preventable illnesses.

There are similar statistics when it comes to preventable blindness. Worldwide, up to 70% of childhood blindness is preventable. An estimated 1.4 million children throughout the world are blind. 320,000 of them live in Sub-Saharan Africa, where most of them cannot afford surgery or treatment.

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.

Because of this lesson I have learned from my Torah portion I have decided to spend the next year raising money for a caring organization called Unite for Sight. Unite For Sight empowers communities around the world to improve eye health and prevent blindness. The volunteers that work there work with partner eye clinics in developing countries to provide eye care and eye health education programs.

It is easier to make a difference than we often think. According to Unite for Sight, $50.00 can restore sight to one person in Africa. That means if everyone in this room donated $10.00, we – each of us here today – would together restore sight to 100 people. It’s that simple to change a curse into a blessing!

To date, Gabe has raised almost $6,000.00 for Unite for Sight. The funds raised will be used to purchase a visual field analyzer for the Eye Clinic of the Teaching Hospital in Tamale, Ghana – which the clinic desperately needed in order to help diagnose glaucoma in their community. In a letter to Gabe, clinic director Dr. Seth Wanye wrote:

We have never had this equipment in the history of the eye clinic and it is going to help us diagnose and treat tens of thousands of glaucoma patients so that we can give them the proper treatment to preserve their sight…Your work is very important to what we are doing in Tamale. On behalf of the eye clinic and all the staff and and on behalf of Unite for Sight, I want to thank you for the wonderful thing you have done for us and our clients.

And the kvelling doesn’t stop there: this April, Gabe will travel to California, where Unite for Sight will honor him at their annual conference!

You can donate to Unite for Sight by clicking here. To paraphrase Gabe, it’s that easy to make a difference.

Intelligent Giving

tzedakah.jpgIf you are starting to think about year-end tzedakah giving, here’s a plug for Charity Navigator – a incredibly helpful on-line “charity evaluator” that does a comprehensive financial evaluation of thousands of American charities. It’s a particularly helpful guide to intelligent giving.

Charity Navigator rates charities by evaluating two broad areas of financial health: organizational efficiency and capacity. They use a set of financial ratios or performance categories to rate each of these two areas, and issue an overall rating that combines the charity’s performance in both areas. So if you are ever unsure about how efficiently one of your favorite causes is using your donations, Charity Navigator is a very trustworthy place to turn.

FYI, among prominent Jewish institutions, the following received their coveted four-star rating:

American Jewish Committee, American Jewish World Service, Americans for Peace Now, Chai Lifeline, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, Jewish Community Centers Association, North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, and the Ziv Tzedakah Fund.

The venerable American Jewish Joint Distribution Commitee actually ranked second in their list of “10 Best Charities Everyone’s Heard Of.” (On the opposite end of the spectrum, I was recently dismayed to learn that one of my favorite organizations, the Israel Policy Forum, came in sixth on a list entitled, “10 Charities in Deep Financial Trouble.”)

I’ve especially appreciated the website’s tips and resources for giving, including “questions to ask before donating,” “tips for giving in times of crisis,” and “a guide to volunteering.” I also recommend Charity Navigator’s President Trent Stamp’s great blog, billed as “an insider’s perspective to the inspiring, intruiging, and sometimes idiotic inner workings of the world of non-profits and charities.”

Mirembe Kawomera

coffee-beans.jpgYou should buy Fair Trade Coffee.

If you drink coffee, that is. If you aren’t, I’m not recommending that you create a new addiction, but if you happen to be like me and millions of other hopelessly addicted caffeine junkies, you should at least be aware of the larger economic implications of your habit.

Some basic facts: coffee is the second most actively traded commodity in the world, after oil. Since 1990, retail sales of coffee have increased to $80 billion from $30 billion. Globally, about 2 billion cups of coffee are consumed a day – and 400 million of those are in the United States. Four multinational corporations (Philip Morris, Procter & Gamble, Nestle, and Sara Lee) control 70% of the world coffee market, with the international price determined in New York and London.

At the other end of the equation, more than 25 million farmers and coffee laborers depend upon coffee cultivation for their livelihood. Most of them live in dire poverty because the price of coffee has fallen drastically in recent years. By drinking Fair Trade Coffee, you are supporting efforts to guarantee coffee farmers and workers a fixed price for their product, which in turn will help support the sustainable development of their communities. (Fair Trade has more than just economic implications, however. Click this link to learn more.)

Why is a rabbi going on about Fair Trade Coffee? Because I believe it’s a mitzvah to drink it. After all, Judaism teaches us over and over again to be socially responsible consumers, to act justly toward workers and to alleviate poverty in our world. So what could be more Jewish than drinking Fair Trade Coffee?

My personal favorite is Mirembe Kawomera (“Delicious Peace”), a Fair Trade Coffee produced by a Ugandan Jewish/Muslim/Christian cooperative. It is distributed in the US through Thanksgiving Coffee and can be easily bought via the Internet.

So you should drink Fair Trade Coffee. And if you want to support economic justice AND interfaith cooperation in a world that desperately needs both, you should drink Mirembe Kawomera.