For the past few weeks I have been writing about tzedakah and chesed. In my last column I published a letter from a mother who sought guidance on making tzedakah more meaningful and real in her children’s lives.
Baruch Hashem, the American Jewish community has been blessed with great wealth, and the tzedakah that has been forthcoming from America boggles the imagination. Consider the myriads of causes, institutions, groups and organizations here, in Israel, and throughout the world that have been built and founded by American Jewry.
This willingness to give is part of our Jewish DNA. Hashem Himself endowed us with it: “Veheyei berachah – you shall be a blessing,” G-d told our father Avraham. The charge of G-d is not “Be blessed” but “Be a blessing.”
There is a fine difference between the two, and given the choice we would all probably opt to be blessed. There are so many yearnings in our hearts, so many hopes, so many fears. We go for a berachah and we have so many problems that we don’t know where to begin: health, shalom bayis, parnassah, shidduchim, children, then good children – and before you know it, we add grandchildren to the list. Bottom line: it’s never over.
We all want to be blessed. Yet Hashem anointed our Patriarch with the immortal words “Be a blessing.” My saintly father, HaRav HaGaon HaTzaddik Avraham Halevi Jungreis, zt”l, would put it in laymen’s language. Often he would say to me, “Mein lichtig kind, zolst eemer kennen geiben; zolst kein mol nisht darfen beaten – My precious light, you should always be able to give; you should never have to ask.”
Throughout our long, painful saga, we Jews have always been givers, and I believe that has helped us to survive the savage onslaught of the nations, the ravages of poverty, and all the other suffering we’ve experienced throughout the millennia.
It’s quite simple. If you are a blessing to others, life takes on a different meaning. Even if your heart aches, you know you have to try to help someone else. Even if your body is fatigued and you don’t have the strength to move, somehow you find the energy to get up because you know that others are dependent on you.
I learned what that means early on in my childhood. As a little girl of five, I would go to play with someone who today would be called a “special needs child.” In Hungary we did not have such categorization. Special needs? To us, that meant we had to reach out to one another, because we all had needs that required help. Yes, even at that age we were imbued with the knowledge that we had to be a blessing to our friends and everyone else.
It was with this armor of “Be a blessing” that we responded to the barbarism of the concentration camps. I shall never forget my father’s instructions: “Try to smile, my precious child. And when adults will see a little girl smiling, they will find courage and hope. Be a blessing.”
When we came to America, my mandate to be a blessing gave me the strength to speak to my secular peers and invite them to our Shabbos table. That is how we learned to give tzedakah, and that is how we lived our lives. To us, tzedakah was not just writing a check; it was also giving with love and kindness. “Be a blessing” was emblazoned in our hearts, in our minds, and in our souls.
And now to the paradox.
American Jews have certainly been a blessing to our brethren throughout the world. So how is it possible that this same community that has given so much, that has helped so many, that has been a blessing for those in need throughout the world, has also produced unbridled chutzpah, meanness, selfishness and self-centeredness? Where did we fail? What went wrong?
I know we tend to blame the new technological toys that dominate our culture – the iPods, the BlackBerries, the computers. But there must be something deeper than that. So once again I ask: How can two such diametrically different traits emerge from the same community? How can there be so much generosity and yet so much meanness?
Ask yourself: What do our children see at home? Who are their tzedakah role models? Let’s take a glimpse at what occurs in many of our homes.
Mom is in the kitchen preparing dinner. Eleven-year-old Benny’s cell phone rings. “OK, I’ll e-mail you the info right away,” Mom hears him say.
“Whom are you sending that e-mail to?” asks his mother. “What’s it all about?”
“Michael needs my notes to study for tomorrow’s exam,” responds Benny.
“Now wait a second,” his mother says. “Is this the same Michael who refused to help you when you asked? And now he has the nerve to ask you? Forget it! Don’t be a fool! Just tell him you don’t have it!”
As the years pass, the stakes get higher. Now it’s not just homework – it’s a job, a shidduch, a recommendation, a little help…but the seeds have been planted. Benny will always ask, “Why should I help? It’s tit for tat.”
In vain do Benny’s parents give tzedakah. The image that remains in Benny’s mind has rendered his parents’ checks meaningless, and the legacy of being a blessing is lost on him. He never saw it or experienced it.
Or take another example.
“Is that Jonathan kid still in your class?” Benny’s mother asks.
“Yeah,” Benny replies.
Muttering under her breath, his mother reaches for the phone. “I told them a hundred times,” she mumbles, “that kid does not belong in that class. He’s slow, he’s weird. I don’t want my Benny to associate with him.”
“Mr. Adler,” she says, annoyance seeping out of her voice. “How many times have I called you? How many times did I ask you to remove that kid? My Benny is an excellent student, and I have a right to demand that equally excellent students should be in his class! He just doesn’t belong there!”
Exasperated, she hangs up and instructs Benny not to play with “that kid” or invite him over.
Benny’s mother is known in the community for volunteer work. But all her volunteering will get her nowhere because she’s never taught Benny to be a blessing.
What it all amounts to is simple, and if we are to make it as Jews we must engrave this teaching of chesed upon our own hearts and the hearts of our children.
Every day when we recite the Shemoneh Esrei, we commence our prayers with “G-d of Avraham, G-d of Yitzchak, and G-d of Yaakov.” But we conclude the berachah with “Magen Avraham – Shield of Avraham.” Now, what is that shield? Yes, we have a Magen David – the Shield of David – but did anyone ever see the Shield of Avraham? The answer is a resounding yes. That shield of Avraham is the shield of chesed.
How well are we doing? Are we carrying the Shield of Avraham?
I would recommend that our sons and daughters see us, their parents, extend tzedakah with warmth and love. Let them see for themselves how to give with chesed, and let them learn it from us.
Be a blessing. It’s not a concept; it’s our very life. Once we teach this to our children, they will be fortified and not collapse as the fierce winds blow and threaten their lives.
Be a blessing!