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Kol Nidre: Tzedakah Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Kol Nidre—Friday, September 13, 2013

At Shir Hadash we are very careful that the Temple president’s appeal for financial support for the congregation takes place before our Rosh Hashanah service actually begins. It feels to us like business and we don’t want it to interfere with the mood of holiness that we hope will pervade the holidays.

Earlier generations of Jews were not so squeamish. Our parent’s generation heard a Kol Nidre appeal, so named because it was always made during the most emotional moment of the High Holiday services. There would be envelopes with little cards, and you would turn down the tab for the amount that you were committing to donate. In the early years of my rabbinate, the lunch at the rabbis annual High Holiday Sermon Seminar was always sponsored by Israel Bonds. Along with the free kosher corn beef and pastrami sandwiches we would get materials for this year’s Israel Bond appeal theme. The High Holiday appeal was so important that it was a major division of the organization.

In our grandparent’s generation it was likely that the amount of their gift would be announced, in front of the whole congregation, especially if they were part of the circle of more significant givers. “Does Macy’s tell Gimbels?” my grandmother used to ask, and in term of tzedakah, the answer was yes.

Down through the ages and in some Orthodox congregations to this day, there is competitive bidding in the synagogue for important honors every week. Since they couldn’t write on Shabbat it was important that there be someone trustworthy and well respected with an excellent memory, who would then visit those who won the bidding after Shabbat was over and remind them of their commitments. Enforcement was entirely voluntary but if you reneged, your future bids would be jeopardized.

Prayers, including the mi sheberach and even the yizkor memorial prayer included the words, ba’avor she-nadav litzdakah, inviting God to heal our sick relatives, or remember our dead, “because charity has been offered on their behalf”.

The Reform movement was uncomfortable at this insinuation that God takes bribes. After all, the Torah insists that God does not and warns us not to, but I think it was a different concern which caused this phrase to disappear from our prayer book. We were uncomfortable talking about money. We had taken on the Western dichotomy of body and soul, the physical and the spiritual, the dirty and the pure, with money relegated to the former.

But in Jewish theology, there is no duality and no negativity about the physical universe and all its manifestations, including money. Poor for so many centuries, poverty was not considered holy by Jews; still what an individual did with their money was to be a reflection of their spirituality. The opening words of the V’ahavta, recited each and every day, were understood to mean that the love of God was expressed in how you spent your money.

Ve’ahavta et Adonai elohecha bechol levavcha, uvechol nafshecha, uvechol meodecah. You shall love God with all your heart ( levavcha- your Lev is your heart) and with all your soul ( nafshecha- your nefesh is your soul), but what is meodechah? The word meod is not a body part, it normally means “very,” which makes no sense here. We are accustomed to the translation, “all your might,” but it’s not about beating people up. The commentaries derive me’odechah from the word midah, and so the phrase comes to mean, “in every measure”, meaning with whatever talents or means you have.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great scholar of modern Orthodoxy understands it as follows; “Loving God with all one’s assets.” By this he means using your assets in the service of God’s commandments, and not violating God’s teachings, even for the sake of financial gain.

The most familiar way of using our asset’s to promote God’s work in the world in through Tzedakah, and for all the complaining about the lack of religiosity in the American Jewish community, that is one mitzvah that we observe.

If demographic surveys are correct, over 86% of us sitting here tonight have made a charitable contribution this year- may I see a show of hands? Those who are Temple members are statistically more likely to have also supported other Jewish causes. Those who are visiting us for the holidays, are more likely to have supported a non-Jewish charity- something which Judaism also views as a Mitzvah. Most of us have done both and the more Jewishly connected we are, the more likely we are to give and give more to Jewish and non-Jewish organizations..

The importance of Tzedakah as a Jewish value is something well understood. When you ask Jews about doing Jewish, tzedakah is often the first thing mentioned. Every survey including one released just last week finds that the Jewish community is generous in charitable giving----being both more likely to have given a gift, and to have given more.

Even young Jews, those in their 20’s and 30’s, whose Jewishness we worry about so much, are givers. Though not as great a percentage of younger Jews give tzedakah as their parents, they are still more likely to give than non-Jewish young adults of the same age.

But Jewish giving does follow one distressing pattern found also in the general community. As we become more affluent, with the exception of a very small percentage at the very top, we become less generous, measured both by the percentage of our income that we contribute and by the number of times we give. Why is that?

Is it because as we get further from poverty we forget its sting and are less moved by appeals to help?

Is it because as we become more successful, we begin to think of ourselves as having made it on our own and conveniently forget the help we got along the way. Our family may have originally made it into the middle class because of programs like the GI bill and federal mortgage guarantees, along with good public schools and universities. We may also have benefitted from the advantage of having books in our home, the support of our extended family, and role models, others like ourselves who had already made their way. But we tend to forget or minimize the help that lifted our families out of poverty. This is what Moses is worried about in Deuteronomy, when he fears that once we are in the Promised Land, we will say, with the might of my own hand have I achieved all this.

Or maybe we become less generous just because, if we have been fortunate to become more affluent, then when we calculate the number, it’s not so small. The Jewish suggestion is between 5% and 20% of income, well above the Unites States average of 2-3.5%. Let’s say we calculate 10% of our after tax income for tzedakah. If we do this honestly, it might turn out to be a larger number than we are prepared for, and we clutch, nervous about giving that much away. What if something happens? On the verge of making a generous charitable contribution, we become a faithless people, not in the Christian sense of not believing in that which can’t be proven, but in the Jewish sense of lacking emunah, trust and confidence. We want to be generous, but our anxieties kick in and prevent us from being our best selves. No one is encouraged or even permitted by Jewish law to impoverish themselves through poverty, but we go beyond prudence to a place of fear. We want to be sure to hold on to what we have, but is that really possible?

A story is told about the Jewish philosopher Don Isaac Abrabanel, who lived centuries ago during the Golden Age of the Jews in Spain. Abrabanel was at that time an advisor to the King with many enemies in the court. One day, those who were envious of his success attempted to ruin him by telling the king that Abrabanel had prospered by embezzling from the royal treasury. The king liked Abrabanel and did not believe this, but he was still sufficiently suspicious that he asked Abrabanel to provide him with an accurate accounting of all he owned.

Several days later Abrabanel gave the king a list which amounted to a relatively small sum. “This is hardly a tenth of what I know you own,” said the king. Abrabanel responded, “When your Majesty asked me for an accounting of my possessions I knew it was because my enemies have been conspiring against me. If they succeed, then your Majesty will confiscate everything I have. Thus, those are hardly things I own because I can lose them in just a moment. I therefore made a calculation of whatever money I have given to charity, because that can never be confiscated from me. What I have given away is truly the only thing that I can say that is my own. (as told by Rabbi Abraham Twerski).

In the last recession many of us experienced a decline in our net worth as our homes declined in value or the value of our investments took a hit. But the rabbis remind us that had we given some of that money away to charity, its value would have held. The child would have been fed, the infant inoculated, the woman spared rape as she was able to cook with her solar cooker and not required to wander looking for firewood. That value would persist even as the economy rocked and rolled. The only thing we really own, according to Jewish tradition, is the money we have given away.

As we will see in our Yom Kippur afternoon study, Judaism establishes some criteria for giving money away. We have an obligation first to those closest to us both emotionally and physically. The poor who are close at hand, whether that is in our county, state or country have a special claim on our giving. But there is also consideration given to the type of need, food and water trump shelter, which trumps clothing or dowries, or other less vital needs. Finally there is the question of who is available to help. If there is no one else or just a few people able to help in a particular situation, then our obligation is greater. That is one argument for Jews supporting Jewish institutions- one cannot expect those outside the Jewish community to provide resources for these purposes. This is something we must do ourselves. Sometimes though when requests come into us, as they do these days, daily, by the dozens daily by mail or by phone, compassion fatigue sets in and we excuse ourselves from responding saying that there are others who could step up. But that’s a dubious ethical argument. If everyone acted that way, the buck would be passed infinitely.

The more Jewish approach is to say, “I can’t do everything, but I can do something”. At whatever our income level, even if we ourselves receive benefits, we are required to give tzedakah proportional to our financial might, and to distribute it among the various needs locally and abroad, for immediate life sustaining aide, and for that which will nourish learning and other values. Tzedakah, according to the Talmud, is as important as all of the other commandments combined.

Of course, dedicating our assets in God’s service is about more than tzedakah. Our money speaks our values not just in our charitable giving, but in every dollar we spend. Using very conservative estimates, we, sitting in this room this evening, together spent over $25 million dollars last year. Every dollar that we spent whether on coffee (annual average of over $1K back in 2007, likely higher now and higher in Silicon Valley) or on overall driving costs around $9K) or on clothing (around $2K) has an impact. And just as we can think now more expansively about kosher being a measure of environmental impact and justice to food workers along with avoiding pork and shell fish, we might want to think of the kashrut of each and every expenditure. Someone recently saw a kosher sign on coffee and asked me, can coffee be not-kosher? There’s no animal to slaughter, no potential mixing of milk and meat. But our Shir Hadash board decided that coffee could be traif, if those who grew the coffee weren’t fairly compensated, and we switched to fair trade coffee for all our Onegs and Temple events.

Judaism is not anti-luxuries. When there were Jewish laws limiting consumption much of it was worry about how it would look in the non-Jewish community. But Jewish law has for centuries expressed concern with waste- the commandment is called ba’al tashchit, thou shall not wantonly destroy. There was also a prohibition on eating something prepared through exploitation, for example matzah baked by women who were so underpaid that they could not support themselves was declared not kosher for Passover by Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev. As we spend money this year, let’s think of the effect of our purchases on the lives of those who have picked and shipped, sewn or served those items, as well as on the life of our planet.

In addition to the money we spend, there is for some of us, especially as we age, the money we invest for the future, and here too we have the opportunity to make an impact. 7 weeks ago a pre-school parent spoke at Temple on the Friday night before Tisha B’av about his young children and the threat to their future from fossil fuels. He asked us to consider whether our investments reflected our values in that regard. A retired member of the congregation took his words to heart, and before the weekend was out had researched her portfolio. She discovered that she did have some investments in fossil fuels but that divesting completely would be too difficult a step for her to take at this time. Even with that decision, I admired her actions because she took the trouble to look and knew how to found out. Do I know what the companies I have invested in do on the issues that matter to me? Some of my money is in pre-screened funds, some is in the rabbinic pension fund which has a committee on socially responsible investment. But have I looked carefully, do I really know? Last year Father Eddie Samiengo of Most Holy Trinity Church, one of our health fair partners, convinced me to take my money out of the bank that was treating his neighborhood poorly and to put it in a credit union instead. It was a little bit of a nuisance, but not so terrible. In an hour or two I was able to move my money where my mouth has been.

We say we are investing for our grandchildren, but if we ignore issues of global warming, gun violence, and international development, are we thinking clearly about them, and what will have the greatest impact on the quality of their lives. Every study of happiness shows that once we have a certain minimal amount of money, an extra dollar will not increase our happiness significantly, while living in a healthier, safer and more peaceful world will.

We have entered a 25 hour period of reflection. We will use this day to think about our relationships, about the way we use our time, about the Jewish growth that is possible in the coming year, but I hope we will also consider our use of the power we have to do good, and a part of that power is our use of our money.

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