There comes a time in every Jewish child’s life when she is given a small closed container that has a tiny slot just big enough to fit a quarter or maybe a folded dollar bill. No, I’m not talking about the kind that comes in the shape of a baby pig. This container, called a tzedaka box is rectangular-shaped and has one very specific purpose: giving.
Traditionally, Jewish children are presented with these boxes with the expectation that every so often they will put a few coins into it, and when the box is full, the money will be given to a worthy cause. While most people call this money charity, the word tzedaka in Hebrew actually means so much more; it means justice. As a Jew, I have been taught that we don’t give money because we pity others, but we give because it is the right thing to do. Giving tzedaka is essentially an act of making the world a more just place.
I have been putting money in my tzedaka box consistently ever since I can remember. I would swell up with satisfaction every time I lifted that small container and could feel it getting just slightly heavier until, finally, it would be so heavy that I needed both hands just to lift it. That was how I knew it was time to empty it out, count the change, and stack the coins into rolls. With an empowering sense of accomplishment I would bring these stacks of nickels, dimes, and quarters into my dad’s office and proclaim, “I have money to donate!” My dad would promptly collect my coin stacks and ask me where he should send my money. The fact that I never had an answer prepared before bringing the money to my dad is something that, truthfully, never concerned me until several years ago.
Usually I would simply ask my dad, “where’s a good place to donate?” and he would list a few organizations I may have heard about recently, in school or on trips to Israel. Nine out of ten times my tzedaka money would go to planting a tree in Israel, mostly because I knew this was something I could brag about the next day in school. I would leave my dad’s office, confident that Israel was now a greener place, all thanks to my valuable donation. But only ten steps later I would return to my room, place the emptied box back on its shelf, and feel that emptiness somewhere in my stomach. The pride of my seemingly hefty donation imploded right into feelings of guilt and stress.
It has taken me over ten years to finally begin to understand why I rarely returned proud from my giving. Looking back, I can say with certainty that giving with a purpose resonates far differently from giving aimlessly. This is not to say that tree-planting in Israel is not a worthy cause, but rather that it is one I felt no purpose in giving to, aside from the bragging rights I believed it would lend me. How could I possibly feel that I brought a little piece of justice to the world when I couldn’t even identify the injustice to begin with?
Giving is about more than taking aimless shots at world problems. You want to make the world a more honest and fair place? Start by identifying the injustice you are looking to repair. Where do you see the gaps in society? What tears need mending and what can you do to help that happen?I’m no expert, but I can’t imagine taking the time to do this will ever steer you wrong.