Walk into any of our early childhood classrooms during Tefillah or meeting time, and chances are you will see our students working hard to hold coins in their "tzedakah grasp" and drop them into the slot atop a tzedakah box. Why do we begin teaching about tzedakah at such an early age, well before our students have their own money to give? The Rambam explains that God chose Avraham's children as a sacred nation because Avraham would teach them about tzedakah, the hallmark of righteousness. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks adds that tzedakah forges "the moral bond between Jew and Jew" and is "foundational to the concept of covenantal society: society as an ethical enterprise constructed on the basis of mutual responsibility." To imprint this identifying trait on our children and to set the foundations of community and responsibility on them, we start teaching the mitzvah of tzedakah at the earliest age.
In this week's parashah, Moshe reminds the Jewish People of the commandment to give tzedakah. "If, however, there is a needy person among you...do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin. Rather you must surely open your hand [to the needy] and lend resources sufficient for whatever he or she needs" (Devarim 15:7-8). As they will soon enter the Land of Israel, Moshe underscores this mitzvah essential for building a just society in which people see beyond themselves to address the needs of others. Interestingly, when we speak of tzedakah, there is no good English translation for the word. A derivative of the Hebrew word tzedek, justice, tzedakah creates social balance and is a pursuit of what is right and what is good, a demonstration of justice in the social sense. The English word charity connotes something different, something more akin to sympathy and benevolence. This weekend we usher in the Hebrew month of Elul, the precursor to the High Holidays. During this month, we turn introspectively to search our own deeds and pray for God's blessings; we learn that repentance and prayer will help us be inscribed for a good year. Tzedakah is a force for good on equal standing with repentance and prayer. At this time of deep personal reflection, we are reminded of our obligation to look outward and focus on the needs of others; we remember that we are part of a Jewish community and Jewish world in which we have the power to effect change through establishing social justice and tzedakah.
To model the value of tzedakah, Akiba will engage in several activities during the month of Elul (and beyond!). The Early Childhood program is collecting goods to support the JFS Diaper Shower. In addition, to help people in need celebrate Rosh Hashanah, all students from K'ton Ton through 8th grade will be baking challah on Sept. 20 that will be donated to JFS's food pantry and Rosh Hashanah meal program. If you are interested in volunteering on that day, please contact me. And, we, of course, continue to encourage students of every age to bring tzedakah daily to contribute to the class tzedakah box. In the Lower School and Middle School, students have an opportunity to vote for the recipients of their class contributions. May our giving continue to grow!