How #GivingTuesday Helps Us Fulfill a Jewish Obligation

November 21, 2018Riva Silverman

Thanksgiving can be a complex holiday, particularly when we fail to acknowledge the historical inaccuracies and obscuring of oppression it perpetuates. However, for me and my American husband, it also represents family and gratitude. Because I grew up in Canada, I never had the experience of participating in this uniquely American holiday. Canadian Thanksgiving, celebrated in mid-October, is not nearly as ritualized or ingrained in Canadian culture or identity as its American counterpart. This year is the 35th Thanksgiving I've spent with my American husband’s family; the joy and sense of awe I feel as we all gather around the table has not diminished over the years. 

Yet it always feels odd that there is no ritual to begin the meal. On all other holidays that involve gathering around a festive table – Rosh HaShanah,  Passover, or even a special Friday night Shabbat dinner – we begin with Kiddush, blessing the wine, and marking the specialness of the day. 

So, when the Belfer Center for Innovation & Social Impact at the 92nd Street YMCA in New York City inaugurated #GivingTuesday in 2012, I found a way to infuse my Thanksgiving with some holiness. What could be more sacred than ensuring that tzedakahtzedakahצְדָקָהFrom the Hebrew word for “justice,” or “righteousness;” refers to charity or charitable giving. May also be translated as “righteous giving.”  , giving to further the work of world-repair, is tied to the holiday? 

On the most basic level, giving to others while we enjoy a great feast has been part of Jewish life and law for centuries. Maimonides, in his legal treatise "Mishneh Torah," discusses what it is to celebrate on a holiday: 

And when the members of the household eat and drink, they are obligated to feed strangers, orphans and widows as well as all other poor people. However, if they lock their doors and eat and drink with their family and do not feed the poor and others going through hard times, this is not the joy which was commanded, but merely satisfying their stomachs. 

We cannot truly celebrate a holiday if we limit our celebration and feasting to ourselves alone. We must tend to the needs of others in our community. 

But I believe our tradition has even more to teach us about giving. 

The Hebrew word tzedakah, which is usually translated as charity, philanthropy, or giving, has a much more profound meaning. It comes from the same root as the word tzedektzedekצדקJustice  and implies that giving charity alone is not nearly enough. Jewish tradition demands that we must do all we can to ensure that our society is built on the pillars of economic and social justice, particularly at a moment when we are enjoying our own material blessings. 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in an essay titled "Tzedakah: The Untranslatable Virtue," writes: 

"Tzedakah cannot be translated because it joins together two concepts that in other languages are opposites, namely charity and justice. It is the idea that no one should be without the basic requirements of existence, and that those who have more than they need must share some of that surplus with those who have less. This is fundamental to the kind of society the Israelites were charged with creating, namely one in which everyone has a basic right to a dignified life and equal worth as citizens in the community."

In the midst of the post-Thanksgiving glow, and the pre-holiday season excitement, we should use #GivingTuesday as an opportunity to live out one of the most fundamental teachings of our tradition. Whether we choose to support organizations working to secure voting rights, welcome immigrants and refugees, protect our environment, tackle poverty and homelessness, defend civil rights here in North America, stand in solidarity with Israel, or combat oppression both inside and outside our communities (including antisemitism, racism, xenophobia, and misogyny and other forms), we must all do our part to further social and economic justice in the world. 

#GivingTuesday may be a newer idea, but let us seize this moment and commit ourselves to an ancient value: true tzedakah. 

Support the Union for Reform Judaism, which upholds the principle of tikkun olam (repairing the world) by strengthening communities of belonging across North America and creating a world where all Jewish people can participate and are valued. 

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