Rabbi Tarfon would say: …It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.
—Pirkei Avot 2:21
Being at a bit of a loss for this week’s blog post, I asked my almost-eleven-year-old son for his favorite Jewish tradition, as practiced by our family. He pondered for one short “Hmm,” then said, “I think it’s when we put a dollar in the tzedaka box every Friday.”
And suddenly I had a lot to write about: that doing good carries the immense satisfaction of righting wrongs and seeing one’s impact on the world; that giving empowers children; and more.
I mention my son’s age because developmentally, the tween years mark a break with childhood and its securities. Suddenly, family and school are not enough: kids need to know that they can effect change, true change, in the myriad injustices they see around them. Ideally, school and family become a platform for them to affect the larger world. The desire to have a personal hand in Tikkun Olam, the repair of Creation, is increasingly urgent at this age, which is why many middle schools have mandatory volunteer programs—perhaps my favorite oxymoron. And this is a good thing, because kids this age often feel very keenly the frustration of not acting, or doing not enough, which may perhaps contribute to the common adolescent conviction that parents just don’t understand. How could they, when they are content sit still in the face of much injustice?
It is worth noting that the kids may be right. In a previous incarnation I worked as a park naturalist, and the passion of the young for the natural world burns bright, particularly when nature is in peril. Psychologists say this is because children identify strongly with the helplessness of animals hurt by forces beyond their control. Kids do so in a way that we adults have, alas, largely learned to shrug off.
Channeling kids’ passion for justice is the job of the adult. This was one of the things we studied in Parenting through a Jewish Lens, for in Jewish tradition, family-based tzedaka seamlessly blends two worlds, that of home and the world beyond. How does one give? How much, and when? In what method of giving does the greatest good lie? (Hint: to be a SuperJew, one should give in such a way that the recipient no longer needs help, and ideally does not know the identity of the donor. Otherwise things get really awkward when you run into each other at PTA meetings.)
Ultimately, giving means receiving more than we gave away. This is a message that kids seem able to absorb through the pores, especially if they can partake actively in the process of giving. One of the texts we read aloud in class was an excerpt from A Guide to Jewish Practice: Tzedaka, by David A. Teutsch.
Whenever possible, children should gain a more in-depth understanding of what they are doing. Volunteering in a soup kitchen or animal shelter, studying the need and its causes, and exploring strategies for helping are outstanding precursors to giving tzedaka to related causes…. As children get older, they should be invited to join in the decision-making about where at least some of the household tzedaka is given.
As is so often the case in Jewish life, study (of the issue) leads to action (donating time and money to a worthwhile cause). In this way tzedaka bestows on us, the ostensible givers, an unexpected gift: children who become ethical human beings, which is the essence of Jewish adulthood. This centuries-old tradition demands of us the opportunity to help fix the world, and then bequeaths to us better Jews.
This post originally appeared in the August 19, 2014 issue of Adult Jewish Learning.