Wednesday, December 19, 2007

What Judaism taught me about Christmas

Christmas. To some it means "Santa Claus, and ho-ho-ho, and mistletoe... and presents to pretty girls." To others it means lights and giving and kindness to your fellow man. Jews celebrate Hanukkah, commonly known as the Festival of Lights. Whereas the secular world has adopted Santa Claus for its icon and Christians have adopted the nativity scene for theirs, Jews have a candelabra.

But there's more. Charitable works are common during this time of year... but I think these acts are moved more by a sense of the season rather than from the heart. A recent newspaper article introduced me to the concept of Tzedakah. It introduced the Tzedakah box as a Hanukkah event, but asking some of my Jewish friends revealed that this is an on-going, annual affair. Hanukkah involves the children more, but it goes on all year long.

The word "Tzedakah" is roughly translated to mean "Justice" or even more loosely translated as "Charity", but there's a difference between Tzedakah and Charity as Rabbi Simmons points out.
"'Charity' implies that your heart motivates you to go beyond the call of duty. 'Tzedakah,' however, literally means 'righteousness' -- doing the right thing (even if you don't feel like doing it)."
Tzedakah is considered to be an obligation, and to many Jews it's one of the aspects they believe to bring them eternal salvation. Although I believe, as a Christian, that tithing is a crucial part of what God asks us to do, I believe more so that it has no bearing to eternal salvation. It is more of a response to God's love and providence. God is more interested in the state of our hearts than in our bankroll, though He does take that in consideration. The story of the Widow's mite reveals this. It takes a dedicated and giving heart to give up so much when you have so little, whereas it doesn't mean as much for a millionaire to tithe.

Tzedakah boxes are a novel idea - it shows our obligation to the Lord, but also reflects our acknowledgment of what He has provided. I would personally like to set one up at our home all year, where each season it's dedicated to a specific cause. But I am more concerned about building up a desire to help others within my children's hearts.

An interesting article reveals one woman's motivation to teaching her children, and it's a very pertaining one, but what struck me as even more interesting was the article's citation of the 2000 Cone/Roper Raising Charitable Children Survey.
Ninety-four percent of Americans believe "parents play a key role in getting children involved" in charity efforts, according to a new poll, The 2000 Cone/Roper Raising Charitable Children Survey. Yet 70 percent of parents admit their children are not involved in any charitable activities.
Although they posted a series of excuses it's apparent to me in my own life that the real excuse is selfishness. Yes, we should take care of our family and neighbors first, but I think back on how many times I've been wasteful or inconsiderate in regards to others who are less fortunate - and there's always someone nearby who is less fortunate, so it's not that they're difficult to find.

I'll give you two examples that are very similar - and resembles how some life lessons have to be taught more than once.

During a mission trip our church group traveled by rail from northern Mexico to south Mexico City. It was a two day trip and meals were provided by the government operated train route. I remember one of the meals. Tepid chicken that had been obviously unrefrigerated for many hours, cold bean mash and tough egg-shell-laden dinner rolls. Most of us had taken a bite or two, then decided that hunger was a better alternative... after an hour they came back to retrieve what wasn't eaten.

Half an hour later the train stopped in the middle of the desert. There had been news of a train raid the month before so a couple of us had concern. I just arrived to the back of the car where a few others had gathered when a conductor stepped up with a pile of Styrofoam lunch boxes.

In the distance you could make out dozens of children. Their dirty black tangled hair flowed in the hot wind and their muddy faces beamed and bounced as they ran across the hardened dunes. As they arrived to the train the conductor began passing out our half-eaten lunches. Some children took two or three boxes.

I stood there astonished. The very same food I felt I was too good to eat just an hour ago was accepted with sincere gratitude from these destitute children. We didn't stop for long. Maybe we were paused for only fifteen minutes. The conductor gave his last two boxes to a little boy right as we began pulling away. As we pulled out of sight I saw another little girl run up. The boy stopped her and gave her one of his boxes and I realized this moment would burn in my heart and mind for all eternity.

Maybe "burn" is too harsh of a word. My heart was warmed by the whole scene, but it also was also seared with conviction.

Many years later I went to DC on a business trip. I usually buy foods that I know I'll like because it seems wrong to use company per diem on something that might be wasted, but during this trip I bought something new to try - some peanut butter and jelly snack bars.

Oooh they were awful. By awful I mean that I didn't like them one bit. Maybe it's good to some people's taste, and I'm not a finicky eater, but I could only stand to eat a few of them during that week.

I had one last day that was gifted to me by the company to explore DC. That morning, with some guilt-led hesitation I threw out the box with the remaining three bars. An hour later I was wandering about the Smithsonian museums.

"Hey, could you help a fellow out?" I heard a thick voice from a planter built near the street. I only had a $20 bill for emergency cab fare in my wallet, but even if I did have change, was well aware that most of the homeless in DC aren't really homeless. They beg for a living, though they are fully capable of working. There are a few of them that really are homeless - you can tell by their carts and their teeth. Sometimes you see them digging in the trash for a half-used cigarette or half-eaten sandwich. This one didn't look like that. He looked washed and groomed, so I didn't feel any guilt saying "No" ... at least not at first.

"Please. I'm hungry. Do you have any food?" ... and then the wave of guilt set in. I had to say no again, but this time I remembered how I had thrown away that food earlier that morning.

Years later that memory still brings guilt, if not concern. Why would a reasonably clean looking and groomed young man be asking me for food? Was he a robber who used this tactic to draw victims? A person who just recently fell down on his luck? Or as Hebrews 13:2 points out ... what if he were an angel sent to test me?

The point to this is that if I were less wasteful, I could do more for those who are in need. To do so it has to start as a priority to give to others first.

Our society pushes consumerism, not humanitarianism. Other than the ultra-cheesy "I'd like to buy the world a coke, and sing in harmony" campaign, I have yet to see a company advertise the importance of giving to others. Where's the "bring a homeless man into McDonalds and we'll buy you both a meal" commercials or the "holiday inn supports the homeless by taking a percent of your proceeds to build shelters" advertisement? You don't see any because homeless are dirty, nasty, gritty and sick. Showing that on TV doesn't produce sales.

So what about Tzedakah? As Americans, we aren't taught that we're obligated to help the poor, or even our own elderly family members for that matter - there is a gross lack of personal responsibility for this injustice. I've seen others point to welfare and social services while they shrug it all off. It's sad that our government ever had to make these policies. We should have always been looking after each other.

Many of us point to a dozen other excuses as to why we haven't been helping out others as we should. When it comes down to it - it's cowardice, laziness and selfishness ... and that's just speaking of my personal excuses, when I come up with them.

Finally, I have to wonder what type of character it teaches the children when even as adults we don't acknowledge the poor and the destitute, the lonely and the brokenhearted, the widow and the orphan. Giving is not just for Christmas or Hanukkah; Tzedakah and Charity are never out of season.

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