Rabbi Cohen’s Sermon Rosh Hashanah 5774 – Tzedakah, It’s not just for the classroom

Every Sunday I would walk into religious school with coins in hand ready for the teacher to pass around the “keren ami” blue box. I don’t hear that term much any more, “keren ami,” meaning fund for my people. These days, we call it Tzedakah, and just like we did in our youth, our kids come weekly to religious school, with coins and dollars in hand, eager to put them into their class tzedakah boxes. There is usually a theme or project for which we collect the coins in hopes of making a large charitable contribution on behalf of the entire school. Last year, our religious school’s collection went to Shoes that Fit, a local organization that delivers new shoes and socks to local students who need shoes that fit and that are not worn through with holes. Some of our students were able to accompany the Arnold family, who helped organize our project,  on a shopping trip to where they purchased over 80 pairs of shoes and 200 pairs of socks with the funds donated by all of our religious school children. At the end of the school year, all of the shoes and socks were organized into an impressive display, here on this bima, so that the students were able to see what their tzedakah funds provided.

Each week, as our children enter religious school, they remind us to give them tzedakah and we happily give our loose coins and dollars, send them on their way, knowing that they are learning a valuable lesson about giving to those less fortunate. But how are we as adults remembering to give tzedakah? How do we, as  a Temple Beth Sholom family care for the larger community through our own acts of tzedakah?

In the Torah and throughout the Bible, tzedakah, or righteous behavior is paired with justice. How we are able to care for those in need and the thought of caring for others is not just an act of generosity and going beyond what we are expected to do but it is a requirement for every day living. Our prophets spoke out against the Israelites for not caring for the poor or even exploiting them. Rabbinic tradition reminds us that tzedakah is equal in value to all the other mitzvot combined. Today, on Rosh Hashanah, our liturgy reminds us that as we examine our deeds from throughout the year and establish our goals for the future, tzedakah must absolutely be included. In our Unetanetokef prayer in which we are challenged with the question of “who shall live and who shall die,” concludes with the words, “but prayer, repentance and charity (tzedakah) temper God’s severe decree.” Ultimately, this prayer is not dictating our destiny for the year, rather, we are reminded how we can help create that destiny in our lives through active participation in our Jewish community, paying close attention to our actions and recognizing that in those moments when we are not perfect, we must seek how we can change our lives and our behaviors. And finally, we are reminded that we are responsible for our world and those who live in it alongside us.

Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh B’zeh; All Israel is responsible for one another, a quote from the Talmud with many levels of understanding and purpose.  “In each instance it teaches that the whole of the Jewish people are responsible for each other’s behavior. Sifra, from the Talmud, commenting on the verse in Behukotai (Leviticus 26:37): “And they shall stumble one upon another”, teaches that when one Jew errs and commits a sin, all Israel is responsible one for the other,” an appropriate consideration for us today and over the next ten days as we join together examining our actions and lives. No one is to be alone in suffering and celebration. This statement begins with the ethic that each of us, as members of the Jewish community, are first, a part of a discrete community within the larger world family of nations. We begin by first learning how to care for our own community and then transferring that to how we care for the world as a whole.

By caring for our own community are we then able to fully appreciate the parallel obligation and responsibility for us to also care for the world. Rabbi Elazar ben Rav Shimon taught, ‘Since the world is judged according to the majority as the individual is judged, when one performs a single good deed he should be happy that this has benefited both himself and the entire world.’ (Kiddushim 40b

We are familiar with so many ways in which we are able to care for the community. One of the items we will be given today to take home with us is a grocery bag. Go home or to the store and fill this bag or multiple bags with items from the list provided so that we can continue to feed those in need. Think about the amount of food you will NOT be eating on Yom Kippur and put the equivalent of three meals into these bags so that someone else may have something to eat in order to sustain them.

We are proud that we are entering our fourth year of Mitzvah meals. That three years ago we began a weekly program in which we come together as a community, pick up food from local stores and suppliers, sort, cook and serve over 250 people each week.   Think about this for a moment, we serve over 13,000 meals a year! That is an impressive number. It should make us feel good about the difference we are making in people’s lives, yet at the same time, we should feel sad that we need to provide over 13,000 meals a year – and that only scratches the surface for those who go hungry, adults and children, each and every day. But 13,000 meals do not get made and served alone. It takes an army of people. Right now, we have a list of 50 regulars who participate, but we need more. If you have never participated in Mitzvah Meals before, do so now! If it’s been a while, come back. Maybe some day we won’t need Mitzvah Meals because there will no longer be those who are hungry, but honestly, I don’t see this need ending any time soon.  Therefore, we really need everyone to be a part of this project. It is a reminder that we are all responsible for one another.

And there is another way for us to be involved in caring for the other. Today, I want to suggest we go back to a more basic act, the act of putting the penny in the pushke.  (Reminds me of the song taught to our preschoolers)

It’s time to reacquaint ourselves to the tzedakah box. First, let me introduce you to the tzedakah box that many of us have walked past over the past couple of years and might not have paid much attention to. It was a gift to the congregation from our amazing Sisterhood who supports TBS in so many ways and with so many gifts. Their vision with this tzedakah box was to place it at the entrance of the synagogue and remind us to engage in the act of giving tzedakah on Shabbat and whenever we come to TBS. Unfortunately, it blends in so beautifully with all of our other pieces that it has started to go unnoticed. This is why I’ve brought it up to the bima today so that we might all see it once again and remember that it is here. But what does the money collected go for? The purpose of the tzedakah box is for the money to support projects that support those in need, such as feeding the hungry, providing financial support to organizations that provide clothing to children and adults, contributing to funds when tragedy hits, like hurricane Sandy or tsunami relief.

There are tzedakah boxes in our classrooms with our youth and we even find one passed around by our Torah study group each Shabbat morning (9:15 in the library – all our welcome to attend with no experience necessary), and there is a tzedakah box at our temple board meetings. Each of these groups decides together where the contributed funds are distributed.

And today, I want to give each family a gift – your own tzedakah box. For some, you may say, ‘but I already have a tzedakah box!’ and I know that our B’nei Mitzvah students have one as the Brotherhood gives one to each of them. However, you can never have too many tzedakah boxes around the house. Think of all the times you find change laying around and you don’t know what to do with it. Put it in the tzedakah box. Have a tzedakah box on the washing machine, and every time someone leaves change in their pockets or it’s found in the dryer, put it in the tzedakah box. Those coins start to add up to something significant.

The tzedakah box I am giving you today comes not just from me, but from a community wide project, called Six Million Coins. Mount Sinai Memorial Parks, the Federation of Greater Los Angeles and synagogues throughout Southern California are partnering in the Six Million Coins project to honor the fallen and to give tzedakah to Holocaust survivors in need.  Len Lawrence, the General manager for Mt. Sinai Memorial parks started this project out of a strong feeling that we, as a community, need to care for the survivors of the Holocaust.  He stated, “For decades, so many of them have stood for us as pillars of courage, strength and optimism. And also for decades, they have told their stories… life stories that are heart wrenching, moving and inspirational. It is the responsibility of our community to honor these Survivors, care for those in need, and make certain that their stories live on for eternity.” There are so many who live below the poverty line and have no family to care for them. We are their family. It is up to us to help them live their lives with dignity and in comfort. This project is an acknowledgment of what they’ve meant to our Jewish community and our commitment to keeping their memory alive even long after they are no longer with us. There is a great and real fear that when there are no living survivors the memories of the Holocaust will be lost forever. And before that day, we need to make sure that these survivors are not forgotten today, while they are still with us. That is where this Six Million Coin project comes in.

By each of us filling these tzedakah boxes and donating these coins to this project, we are caring for those in our community on multiple levels. We are caring for those who survived, and we are perpetuating the survival of the memory of the Holocaust for not only today, but for generations to come.

The coins donated to Six Million Coins will be distributed to six different foundations: Jewish Family Services of Los Angeles who through their Survivors of the Holocaust Program, provide in-home support, personal care, housework, and meal preparation.; Bet Tzedek who helps survivors as they go through the legal process of applying for reparations, pensions and other benefits from Germany; Bikur Cholim taking care of the medical needs of Survivors; Survivor Mitzvah Project providing financial aid to Holocaust Survivors in remote areas of Eastern Europe and the Ukraine; American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee who partners with local communities to meet the pressing welfare needs of low-income Holocaust Survivors in Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania thru the Vulnerable Survivor Support Fund and provide basic necessities, such as food, medicine, home care and winter heat brings life saving relief to this aging population; and Jewish Foundation for the Righteous who supports aged and needy rescuers in 22 countries.

While I hope we will work together as a community to help reach the Six Million Coin goal, I also believe we will be successful if each family takes one of these tzedakah boxes, fills it and uses it for any charity that touches you personally.  As I mentioned last night and you will hear throughout the High Holy Days and beyond, this year is about building relationships and community. And today, this is about connecting and caring for our entire community. Starting with our Jewish community and continuing to care for our entire world community we acknowledge and undertake the value of, Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh B’zeh; All Israel is responsible for one another.

From the coins collected in the pushke, to the meals cooked and delivered through Mitzvah Meals, may each of us build our relationship and partnership with God and each other to repair our world. May we lovingly care for those who have given so much for each of us to be here today, and know that what we do is not only for our own personal gratification, but understand that we are building this world for future generations to come. That is our charge, how will it be our legacy? Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – justice, justice shall we pursue and through tzedakah shall we bring blessings to our world and all those whose lives we touch.

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