April 1, 2003
A Way to Act…
Sometimes we just don’t know how to act. We see the world filled with so many wonderful, perfect creations. And we just don’t know how to act. We see the world filled with so many horrible, irrational events. And we just don’t know how to act. We are overwhelmed. We are calmed. We are stunned. We are silenced. We are enraged. We are ecstatic. And we just don’t know how to act.
Our tradition tells us how to act. Our tradition guides us. It tells us that, as Jews, we are to perform acts of tzedakah. The word tzedakah is built from the Hebrew root of Tzedek, meaning justice. As Jews, we can react to our world—in all her many nuanced intricacies, by creating justice in her. “But, yes, Jocee, this is old news,” you tell me. Of course we should give tzedakah. Of course this is Jewish. Tell us something new. I am here to tell you about something new.
For the past few months, I have been working on a fellowship with a tzedakahcollective called KAVOD. KAVOD operates on essentially no budget. Since its inception ten years ago, it has accrued 75 dollars in overhead and it has given away over 310,000 dollars. KAVOD, which means, honor, was created by a group of rabbinical students who wanted to give tzedakah to deserving parties. And so, the purpose of KAVOD is to give money to organizations—Jewish or non-Jewish—that work to give dignity to others. We have all heard horror stories about charities which embezzle funds or steal from givers. KAVOD not only operates on a near-nothing budget and is run entirely by volunteers, but it makes sure that any organization it gives to has the same commitment to low-overhead and to integrity.
As a KAVOD fellow I have two main responsibilities: Finding worthwhile organizations that help people to find dignity, and collecting money to give away. Any money that I raise for KAVOD is matched by the organization dollar for dollar. If I raise ten dollars, KAVOD gives me ten more to donate through its name. It is then my job to research organizations that have low overhead costs and help people to achieve human dignity and I then donate the money. I am serving as a tzedakah conduit. And I have never felt a more awesome responsibility.
Why am I telling you all this now? Well, Pesach begins this week. We are told that we should invite poor people into our homes and share our Pesach meals, our sederim, with them. But, in our day, is this feasible? With the dangers associated with such a practice, it just seems to be an antiquated notion that is best left in some other period, to some other people. But, I would like to suggest that, in a way it is more feasible today than ever. You see, while it may not be possible for us to open our doors to strangers, it is possible for us to open our hearts.
On Pesach, we retell the story of our people’s freedom from slavery. We, as a people, begin our journey with our status as individual slaves, working for the Pharaoh without reward. We toil in the hot sun, we have no freedom and no political status. We feel disconnected from God. We cannot practice our religion and we live in fear that our children will be killed. But, we, as a people, journey. We are freed by God, who leads us from our bondage inmitzrayim to wander in the desert. We pass through the Red Sea, just like a newborn passing from her mother’s womb into the light of the world. With our birth—or rebirth—we are no longer a tribe of individuals, but a community, a people—we are birthed as Am Yisrael. In the desert we wander and suffer. We see awe-inspiring visions. We transition from a band of slaves into a coherent community that comes to see itself as one. And, as generations pass, we journey further. We pass from wandering and emerge as a people of the world. We spread out over the globe, we grow, we change, we learn, and we plant our feet firmly on the soil of every corner of this earth. We even travel into space.
You see, on Pesach we remember who we were, who we are, and who we are to become. Pesach, which means passing over, is the tale of our people’s passage. It is our deepest and most profound communal memory. Our Pesach story moves us from individual, to community, to world. From Egypt, to the desert, to the earth. From slave, to people, to human. From I, to we, to them.
And, this is how we should give tzedakah!
We give tzedakah first to those causes that touch our individual lives personally. We give money to people we encounter—on the street, in a store, or through acquaintance, we give tips to people who help us, we put a dollar in a tzedakah box, we donate time and energy to organizations that touch us personally. But, we do not stop there. Our journey continues. We give to our communities. Look above you—you put a roof on this building when it needed to be covered! You bought presents for a local family so they could have a meaningful celebration of their Christmas holiday. And we give blood in local blood banks, pay temple dues, help in local organizations. This is an active, caring congregation. But, there is still more. We can also give to our world. We can find those causes about which we feel passionately and support them. We can allow ourselves to feel connected to every human being on this world. We are part of a great network that links us together with every soul on this planet. When one loop of that great net breaks, we find ourselves disconnected. When one person is allowed to fall from this great network—because of hunger, poverty, preventable sickness, or pain—our world is made less perfect, less whole. As Jews, we can work to mend these tears. We can help to provide dignity to each individual life, each and every nefesh.
This Pesach, we have an awesome opportunity; we have the chance to be an individual slave, a member of Am Yisrael, and a part of humankind. This Pesach, we have the chance to be each of these elements at once. Our triple-identities are reaffirmed as we remember our slavery, as we, through our actions, invite strangers from our community and from our world into our homes. As we, in the most basic act of human dignity, open the doors to hearts, offer others a seat at our table, and provide a nourishing meal of the soul for a person in need.
I had a conversation with a rabbi before writing this dvar torah. He asked me an important question: Is there kedusha—holiness—in talking to others about giving tzedakah? As he said that, I had this brief glimpse of an ideal world. A world that was truly based on tzedek, on justice. A world where each person had enough to survive. A world where hunger was obliterated and homelessness a long forgotten memory. Can you imagine a world where no one lacked a meal or a home? Imagine such a world—every person living in dignity. This is the ideal. It may seem that it may never be reality. It is the talk of idealists and dreamers. And, yet, it is what we pray for each and every day. Olam Ha’ba. The world to come. As a people, it is our deepest yearning—our collective hopes and desires for a world where every person will live in peace, in dignity. And, each and every day, we have the opportunity to be God’s partner in this work.
When the problems of this world seem too overwhelming, we have a way to act. When we have holidays to celebrate, we have a way to act. When the world seems scary, beautiful, quiet, loud, or out of control we have a way to act. Our direction is to work for tzedek, justice—for ourselves, for our community, and for our world.
In the back of the sanctuary I have placed two things: brochures that give you information about KAVOD, as well as a list of other tzedakah opportunities. I hope they can be a resource for you. If you ever find yourself in need of a way to act, or to react, or to enact justice, please use this sheet.
I wish you all a Pesach filled with joy, happiness, and celebration. May the rebirth of spring rejuvenate you. May the power of this chag—a celebration of freedom and change so desperately needed at this time in our history—move you to live fully…and to take action quickly!