A conundrum: If before the beginning of time God occupied the entire universe, then how could there possibly be room for Creation? If He was there, everywhere, then how could there be space left for us? The answer, according to one ancient mystical tradition, is that God withdrew into Himself, as it were, contracting sufficiently to allow for there to be room for something else. In so doing, He performed the first act of chesed, giving of Himself in a sacrificial act of lovingkindness. In the words of the Psalmist (89:3) – olam chesed yibaneh – the world was built with chesed.
There is a stereotypical caricature of our generation’s youth that they are too materialistic and too wrapped up in themselves. They tend to be takers rather than givers, consumed by consumerism. In the late 1920’s President Hoover convened the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection. Its final report, The Child and the Home, bemoaned the fact that children did not have their own space in their own homes and suggested, among other things, that “a sleeping room for each person is desirable.” Moreover, it felt that it is important to take kids shopping for their own things and let them pick them out by themselves. “Through such experiences personality develops. . . . [These] experiences have the advantage also of creating in the child a sense of personal as well as family pride in ownership, and eventually teaching him that his personality can be expressed through things.” Almost a hundred years later, we as a society seem to have done a fine job of making that happen. Child consumerism represents billions of dollars in the global economy. Oy.
All the more important, then, to make sure that our kids turn into givers and not just getters. How does one turn one’s child into a giver? The most obvious initial answer is giving tzedakah. (Calling it tzedakah rather than charity is important for two reasons: it’s a Jewish word and using Jewish language is part of getting kids to live Jewishly. Second, it has the wonderful connotation of tzedek or justice or doing the right thing as opposed to being benevolent.) Herewith some reflections about giving tzedakah:
Have a pushka (small tzedakah container) at home; ideally, give one to every child. Give young children change to put into it daily. If this is already done at school, make it an erev Shabbat ritual and a Sunday morning ritual. If you go to shul with your child on Sunday or other days during the week, give them something to put into the pushka each time. As the Sefer haHinnukh says, as a result of consistent actions, the heart gets pulled along.
Have a family meeting every once in a while to take all of the money from the family’s pushkas and decide collaboratively where the money will go. For younger children, pick a few causes (please make sure there are Jewish ones among them; one does hope to be training future supporters of the Jewish community) explain what each does, and then have the kids vote on which one they want to send the money to that month. For older kids, pick all three of the causes and decide how the monies will be divided up among them.
A survey years ago by Northwest Mutual asked kids “Do you know what organizations or causes your family donates money or time to?” Most children 17 and younger (77 percent) said either “I’m not aware of their giving at all” or “I know my parents give back, but I’m not sure how or to whom.” Only 23 percent said “My parents talk about the organizations and causes they support.” This is all about modeling. We may be very generous people but if we do not include our kids in our giving practices, then how will they ever learn? Depending on the age of the child, one need not necessarily discuss the details of the amounts that one gives, but letting them know about the causes you support, letting them know that you are taking the time out of your schedule to write checks, letting them know where tzedakah-giving fits into the family budget, are all aspects of “giving” education that can contribute hugely to the creation of “giving” children.
If you are walking on the street with your child and there is a panhandler, granted that our society has good reasons to be cynical, but there is plenty of time for our kids to learn that cynicism on their own. For now, get over the urge to look the other way and give your child some money to contribute.
According to Jewish law, most people are required to give 10% of their income to tzedakah. How one calculates “income” (e.g. is it before or after taxes? before or after yeshiva tuition?) are questions to ask of one’s rabbi. For the purposes of teaching about giving, however, it’s not a bad idea to encourage your kids to give 10% of their allowance every week to tzedakah.
Research often bears out a counterintuitive truth borne out by the following example. In 2001, Independent Sector, a nonprofit organization focused on charitable giving, found that households earning less than $25,000 a year gave away an average of 4.2 percent of their incomes; those with earnings of more than $75,000 gave away 2.7 percent. In other words, you would expect poorer people to give less than wealthier people. They don’t – they give more. Even though we pride ourselves as a community on giving, in an age when kids are encouraged to identify and measure themselves by what they own, we should be working ever harder to get them to see that a truer measure is what they give.
More significant for the soul of parenting is the finding that people who are religious tend to be bigger givers than those who are not religious. Why should this be so? Shouldn’t it be enough to believe in the need to reach out to one’s fellow man on a humanitarian level without involving God in the process?! Apparently not. Perhaps one reason is that religious people tend to have a heightened sense of hakarat ha-tov, gratitude for what they have and for what God gave to us in His own act of chesed, namely, giving us the world in which we live. As King David said: “The earth is the Lord’s and all it contains.” Our task is to teach our kids that we are just paying it forward.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.