Sunday, December 30, 2007

Learning to Give

One of my earliest and nicest memories was when I was five years old. It was my birthday. Mommy and Daddy sat me down, gave me my Thumbelina doll birthday present (God, how I wanted that Thumbelina doll), and then, they gave me something else. I had been reading a story about a little girl who got an allowance. I too, wanted an allowance. I had been begging M & D for an allowance for a month. How much it would be wasn't important; I just wanted money that I could call my own. Pretty please M & D? So on my birthday, Daddy pulled out his wallet and took out 10 shiny nickels. "Here," he said, "is your first weekly allowance." I was thrilled. All that money, all those shiny coins. Mine. I could go to the drugstore (I vividly remember that drugstore, and I can still taste their green lollipops) with Mom and get a toy. I was so happy. All mine. And then came the crushing blow.

"And how much are you going to give the poor people?" Daddy asked.

The poor people? Nothing, that's how much. Let their Mommies and Daddies give them their allowance. Why should I have to give them anything? These were my nickels! Mine. I told my parents that I didn't want to give the poor people anything.
So Dad took me in his lap and explained that Hashem gave us a mitzvah to give 1/10 of our money ("what does 1/10th mean?") to tzedakah, that if I was going to get ten nickels every week, I should really put one of my nickels in the pushka that was next to the Shabbos candles

"But Hashem isn't giving me an allowance, you and Mommy are! Why do I have to listen to Hashem?"

I responded to his request as the budding capitalist that I was yet to become: I started to cry. Hysterically.

They didn't push it. I got to keep my nickels. And the next week, I got my allowance again, and Dad asked the same question "how much for the poor people?" I guess seeing as how they weren't going to force me to give up my nickel, I didn't cry but I didn't give it up either.
I vaguely remember my M & D explaining more about charity and kindness to me over the next two weeks. Some of these sessions they filled in for me later, when I was an adult and retold this story to The Ex. My Dad said that I was behaving like any five-year-old...all about me.

But by the fourth week, when Daddy gave me my allowance and asked me to give tzedakah, I went over to the pushka and put in a nickel. I remember feeling very proud and very generous. I remember that the following week, my allowance increased to 60 cents! Daddy explained that sometimes, not always, but sometimes, when you are generous, you get back even more. After a little lesson in simple fractions, I happily put a nickel
and a penny in the pushka.

This was my introduction to giving charity. My parents instilled the idea of giving ma'aser in me from the very first time that I grasped the idea of ownership. To this day, I am grateful to my parents for the
chinuch they gave me. From that point on, I always set aside 1/10 of my Chanukah gelt, my summer jobs, and eventually my more serious jobs to give to charity, and my parents couldn't have been prouder of me. They did the same thing with all my siblings. And by the way, my parents were never well-off. My family never owned a house or a car. I'm sure there were times when I was younger that it was a struggle to put food on the table, something I cannot relate to today. But my parents' observance of ma'aser was as scrupulous as their observance of Shabbos and kashrus.

Giving ma'aser is one of the few ways you are allowed to "test" God. I have no source for this, but I remember learning it several times in Yeshiva. And indeed, the years I struggled to fulfill my ma'aser were always followed by periods of personal economic upturn. It's not magic, but it seems to happen.

All religious arguments aside, it is good to give. I remember once when I was doing some fund-raising for an organization in my former community, I was speaking to the Rabbi there, and he said that if every Orthodox family in the community fulfilled even half of their ma'aser, not a single Jewish local organization would need money.

There are times when people can be five-year-olds when it comes to giving charity. Whah! I don't want to give. Why should I give? I am barely getting by as it is. And I earned this money. I will give more when I am really wealthy.

No matter where you are in life, it is good to give. It is good to occasionally set aside your own needs and fulfill other people's needs, even when you don't feel like it. It creates connection and it is good to create connection. It is good to be part of something bigger than yourself. It is good to be committed to giving a particular amount, and then rising to that commitment. It is good to give.

This is the most basic of ideas, yet it is one I need to remind myself of every now and then, when I feel the five-year-old in me coming out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I also feel grateful to have been raised in a household that gave ma'aser. It wasn't actually until much later that I realized so many people didn't. On a sidenote, I feel like it's so much easier to give once you feel obligated to give a certain amount. Then the only thing your making a decision about is how to allocate it.