26 February 2009

A Blessed Mess

The seventh graders walk into the room, rambunctious and funny. Like labrador puppies with big feet, their clumsy move into adulthood is charming and inspiring.

A tzedakah box sits on the table and I ask them to make an offering, watching as their hands stretch forward, making a game out of putting the money into the slot. “It’s not a gumball machine,” I think, but they approach the act with a level of playfulness and excited anticipation as if a prize is going to emerge from some secret passage on the other side. Some students even reach for more coins in their pocket. I could see that it felt exciting, like a magic trick, to transform the money from currency to good deed.

“You see what the body can do?” I asked. And imitated the choreographed moves: stepping toward the table where the box rested; reaching dramatically into the pocket; purveying the coin from body to box; and, stepping back, satisfied.

But then we stayed put, examining what our bodies needed to do next: count the money; distribute the money; buy things with the money that can be used to help people in need. Always pointing out that while they were responding to a concept–it is a mitzvah to give–that commandment could only be realized through action.

“Judaism is a system of action,” I said.

Then we took more steps into the forest. Prayers shawls were spread on the table alongside four sets of tefilin and one by one the kids learned how to put them on. There was a newish set and several old sets, including one that I received as a student in Madison from a Holocaust survivor who had kept his set throughout the war, in the Camps. It’s a remarkable living artifact from the Destruction. Some students waited to put those ones on; others didn’t want to go near them.

There was no pattern: some boys liked it, others didn’t. Some girls liked it, others didn’t. But all of them put their bodies into the commandment. They stood, wrapped, balanced boxes, laughed at one another, dutifully and with deep intention pronounced the required blessings, written to accompany the act.

As we stood around wrapping and unwrapping and looking at one another, I passed around a mezuzah scroll, upon which was written the Shma and V’Ahavtah, inviting the students to sing along the words in Hebrew–which they’ve sung forever–”and they shall be a sign upon your hand and a symbol between your eyes”–and they got it.

They had embodied a song they’d be singing for years, never fully knowing the words until then.

A moment of mindful awakening for these nascent adults.

Their hearts and minds in sync–ever so briefly.

When it came time to leave for their next class, they up and left, vanished in a second.

The tallises and tefillin boxes were in a tangled heap on the table beside a Tzedakah Box made heavier by their contributions.

Another Eternal Truth learned: the Teenager will always leave a mess. But what a blessing that mess is.

04 February 2009

The Tzedakah Collective

Here's a good story.

Hidden away on our balcony storage area are about 250 of these Tzedakah Boxes. They were given away as gifts to donors to CBE during an earlier capital campaign for the Congregation, then stored, for some future use. Like many things in storage, they were forgotten.

Last week when President Obama announced his new appointee to Faith Based Initiatives, I wandered up to the balcony, hauled these down, and decided to encourage our Congregation to start a new Tzedakah Fund, especially now, to help our community in these troubled times.

People out of work, stretching their dollars, fearing serious dislocation. It's not going to be easy and we should be ready as a community to provide some support. Food pantries are stretched, people are falling short on rent, scholarship money becomes critical--the needs are suddenly growing and growing. The Torah teaches that the poor will never be gone from our midst; the rabbis say we're not free to desist from doing out part to lessen people's pain.

If we sell all 250 for $50 each, we make a quick $12,500 to start a Tzedakah Collective. And, when one's box is full, that gets brought into the synagogue as well, adding to the fund. A small group of lay volunteers meets periodically and decides how to allocate, how to help.

We announced it at last night's CBE Board Meeting and sold 27 boxes right out of the gate--an auspicious start to a commitment toward small acts of generosity and lovingkindness that can help carry us through.

We'll have them for sale in the Temple Office.

Come buy one and do your part to help those in need during these times.