Photo: Amy and Mom
Spring has sprung, and along with the warmer temps and new sprigs of green comes the blossom of hope. For more than a year, COVID has limited our life choices; it has inhibited, and in most cases, prevented our prior, uninhibited ability to spend time with family, friends and colleagues. We sheltered in place while yearning for the simplest of activities: shopping, going to work, going out to dinner, or the movies. We struggled to “feel” close in times of grief and sorrow as well as occasions of joy. Yet for my 95-year-old mother, COVID did less to restrict her world than the infirmities that have accompanied nine decades of living.
Most of Mom’s friends are gone, and my father, just three months shy of his 100th birthday, died two years ago. But while Mom is wheelchair bound, her mind is impressively agile. I marvel at her deep interest in politics, the books she reads, and her constant contact with family. And while her physical mobility wanes, her capacity to offer guidance, inspiration and wisdom increases.
One such moment came when Mom confided that she wanted to make a difference in her final years. We were sitting on the couch, her fragile body leaning into mine when she told me, “I want to give more, to make a difference in this troubled world – for my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There are so many people who desperately need our help to maintain dignity and a secure life.”
She paused for a moment and then added, “It’s part of being human, you know – to want to give from the heart. And it’s important to figure out what means the most to you and why.”
I was stunned. Mom’s wisdom perfectly articulated the foundation of philanthropic giving: it’s all about identifying your values and priorities and wanting to make the world a better place.
In my previous work as a Legacy Consultant for the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, I saw first-hand the impact of thoughtful philanthropic giving. I watched our Tucson community benefit from the endowments and gifts of people who cared about issues ranging from Jewish education and Israel to social justice, climate change and the arts.
But giving requires some soul searching: How much should we give? How do we prioritize our donations? Should we support Jewish organizations over secular ones? Should we give now or wait until we die?
The Jewish tradition doesn’t speak in terms of charity. Instead, we take our marching orders from the mitzvah of tzedakah, or righteousness in Hebrew. Tzedakah is the hand-maiden to tikkun olam, the Jewish obligation to repair the world. Together, they form a call to action, to consciously distribute a part of what we have to care for others. We don’t give because it feels good (although it does feel good). We give because we’re Jews.
Jewish law prioritizes the poor of our own community over the poor living elsewhere, although priority is given to the poor in Israel. We give in concentric circles: starting with our own family and community and then expanding out into the larger world, including Jews and non-Jews alike. The Talmud specifically recognizes that any needy person who lives peacefully with us is worthy of charity.
During our lives, we will undoubtedly have times when our ability to give may be restricted. And yet it is times like now – when COVID has ravaged our economy and caused a global health crisis unparalleled to anything we have ever known, that Jewish tradition requires us to step up and make a difference.
No matter how much or how little we have, the beauty of tzedakah is that it is an “equal opportunity mitzvah.” As our sages taught: “To the one who is eager to give, God provides the means.”
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an award-winning author, nationally-syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, international public speaker and attorney. She has written more than 300 columns and essays that have been published nationwide, amyhirshberglederman.com.