As is true of most young people, my daughter receives many invitations to birthday parties Each party is fun for her and her friends; they are a bit of a headache, however, for the parents. The carpools, the junk food, and the way these parties seem to wind them up just in time to go home and release all of their energy. And then there are the presents. What to give? How much to spend? Will this kid like that toy? Are there younger siblings for whom such a present could be dangerous? All the while knowing whatever we buy will end up in a pile alongside other presents. I know this because the same applies to the gifts my children receive.
A couple of years ago, however, my hope for humanity was restored.
An invitation to a birthday party contained a simple note from the birthday girl that read, “Please help celebrate my birthday in a special way. Instead of bringing presents to my party, please bring small boxes of crayons and coloring books to donate” to less fortunate children.
Even now I smile at the thought that at a very young age this child is learning and demonstrating that the value of giving trumps the benefit of receiving. A priceless message! Undoubtedly, this is an ethic native to her parents and a value she will pass on to her peers.
Immediately after seeing the invitation, I explained to my daughter what her classmate had chosen to do. We then went to the store, where she picked out the coloring books and crayons she would donate. I explained the great mitzvah that she and her classmates were doing and how proud I was of her choice and exuberance in participating.
I loved it not because of the savings of money on underappreciated toys, but rather because of the values being invested in our shared future.
This week, we read in Parashat T’rumah of the Jewish people’s first fund-raising campaign. We learn that every Israelite, regardless of status, wealth, or role is obligated to give contributions to the needs of the Mishkan. Gifts should include gold, silver, copper, blue and crimson yarns all to beautify the Mishkan, and so that God may dwell amongst us inside of it.
The word that is used in the parashah for donating is v’natnu (vav, nun, tav, nun, vav), meaning “and you shall give.” The word v’natnu, like its root – natan, meaning “give” – is a palindrome, something that spells the same thing forward and backward. Commentators take note of the play on the words teaching us that just as v’natnu works in both directions, so does philanthropy. By giving and living generously we help others while enriching our lives in the process.
This is an important and timeless lesson that applies equally today. Permit me to propose two things we can do to incorporate T’rumah’s lesson in our lives.
First, step up to the plate. Jewish dollars today support non-Jewish causes in an unprecedented manner. Jewish names adorn secular hospitals, museums, and concert halls where once Jews were not welcome.
I strongly believe we need to support these institutions, but not at the cost of the Jewish community. It cannot be either-or; it must be both. We cannot forsake the Jewish community and its needs. We need generosity to make it work. So answer the call and earmark funds in your annual budget to help a Jewish organization that is meaningful to you. T’rumah teaches that every person has a responsibility to support the Mishkan. Everyone must step up to the proverbial plate.
Second, we need to model tzedakah as an activity that is much larger than writing a check. Support the federation, but dedicate a few hours to call friends or random fellow New Jerseyans on Super Sunday 2 on March 11. Take a site visit to one of the organizations federation touches. Donate to the Rockleigh Home, and spend a Sunday visiting a resident there. Bring your kids. Give a resident a manicure (with their permission, of course). Play bingo with any of the wonderful people who call it home. Contribute to AIPAC, but also call your congressperson and thank him or her for a bill they personally voted on that supported Israel or encourage them to support something that is meaningful to the security of the Jewish state.
You can even throw a birthday party and ask the guests to bring presents for kids less fortunate.
By doing any of these things, we do more than give tzedakah; we do tzedakah. We model giving in its best fashion, with our resources and with our hands. It might pinch our pocketbooks or hold back that extra something we have had our eye on for the past months, but isn’t our shared Jewish future worth that pinch? Isn’t that what God taught us in Parashat T’rumah: regardless of our wealth or role, we need to be a contributor to our community? And, the reward for doing so is enriching.
May that reward be an inspiration and may our work and generosity increase our spiritual portfolios in the months and years ahead. May we all give and do acts of tzedakah for our community and its houses of worship, and, as we read in Parashat T’rumah, may we merit having God dwell amongst us.