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Opinion November 2012

Laverne's View

‘Tis the Season

By Laverne Bardy

Tzedakah goes beyond giving something to tide people over; it attempts to get people to, once again, stand with dignity. Even the indigent, who are sustained by charity are compelled to give tzedakah, so that the act of receiving does not leave them without dignity.

Something nice happens every year just about the time that leaves and temperatures begin to fall, and garden centers switch their sales from strawberries and sweet corn to pumpkins and apples.

For women, it manifests itself in a sudden impulse to bake apple and pumpkin pies, and to begin knitting mittens and afghans. Men hurry outdoors to cover deck furniture, chop firewood and rake leaves, and find themselves actually enjoying it.

The crisp air is filled with the scent of burning leaves and the promise of good things to come. Happy feelings escalate as vacant lots start displaying Christmas trees, and Santa’s knee becomes every youngster’s desired destination. Trips to the mall are frequent, hearts beat faster than usual, and our love for mankind intensifies.

Somewhere in the midst of these joyful feelings and fun-filled activities disquieting facts and disturbing images cast dark shadows over our hearts. They appear as stories in front pages of newspapers – stories that describe the plight of the homeless and include appeals for charitable holiday donations. They surface in photographs portraying despair in the eyes of children who look older than their years, with vacant expressions in their eyes, and no hope in their hearts; children who know better than to dream of Barbie dolls and Razor scooters, and pray only for warm coats and shoes with soles.

We read these stories and are deeply moved, so we write checks, and are motivated to pull children’s name tags from huge mall Christmas trees, and buy them gifts. Doing these charitable deeds during the holiday season mollifies our desire to bring a degree of happiness into the lives of those less blessed than we are. We walk away feeling righteous, believing that we have fulfilled our duty as spiritual, religious, caring, human beings.

There is a tradition in Judaism called “tzedakah,” which very loosely translated means charity. But, while charity involves decision, tzedakah does not -- it is an obligation. Charity is something we decide to give to the unfortunate to offset their adversities. Tzedakah goes beyond giving something to tide people over; it attempts to get people to, once again, stand with dignity. Even the indigent, who are sustained by charity are compelled to give tzedakah, so that the act of receiving does not leave them without dignity.

I grew up in a spiritual Jewish family where doing for others was not simply a once a year holiday occurrence. There wasn’t a day when my father didn’t remind us to share our good fortune with others. He made it clear that doing for others was not a choice we were free to contemplate. It was something we were required to do as naturally as we were expected to draw our next breath.

I smile today, because I now recognize that we were not even remotely wealthy. My father was a farmer, a “gentleman farmer,” as he humbly referred to himself, who worked hard and died at the age of 42, never to see the fruits of his labor. There were many weeks when we went without meat, fish or chicken because we couldn’t afford it. Instead, we lived on whatever the land produced -- that and Kraft macaroni and cheese. But my father said that we were fortunate and that’s what my brother and I believed.

Growing up it was not unusual to find a tattered vagrant sitting at our breakfast table. My father, who regularly preached to us about the dangers of hitchhiking, would pick up strangers on the road – people who looked down and out – bring them home, and give them a cot to sleep on in our basement. In the morning mother would prepare them a large, hot, breakfast and a bagged lunch. Then my father would slip a five dollar bill into their hand, which was a great deal of money for us back in the early Fifties, and drive them to some reasonable destination.

When my brother grew up and moved to Manhattan, he regularly filled large shopping bags with peanut butter and jelly and tuna fish sandwiches, apples, oranges and bananas, and walked the streets handing out food to the homeless.

As a teenager I traveled by bus to a neighboring town where I worked summers in an orphanage, without pay.

In our family, doing for others was not viewed as something special; it was simply a part of everyday living. In today’s complex, dot com world of two-paycheck families, high interest credit card payments, endless car pooling, interminable supermarket lines, and time-consuming high-tech communication devices, we barely have time to do for ourselves, much less think about doing for others. But, there is a simple way to teach our children that we are not solely self-involved. In many Jewish homes, you will find a tzedakah box, which is a kind of piggy bank. All end-of-the-day loose change, from family members’ purses and pockets, is placed in this bank. When the bank is full, its contents are donated to a synagogue, a church, or a trusted charity for families or individuals in need of assistance. It’s so easy to do, and an invaluable example to set for our children.

Maintaining the spirit of tzedakah throughout the entire year not only has the power to enrich the lives of impoverished recipients; it enhances and intensifies the quality of each contributor’s life as well.

 

Laverne's book, "How The (Bleep) Did I Get This Old?" is available at amazon.com and other online bookstores. Website: www.lavernebardy.com - E-mail her at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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