It’s that time of year again when American’s reflect on how very fortunate we are to live in this amazing country and on what we can do to make it better. For all the problems we’ve got, and they are daunting, we are so very blessed to be here.
For the past two Thanksgivings, I’ve done a post that focused on counting my own personal blessings, and I plan to do that again. But I’d like to start with the second part of this holiday’s message, the giving part. And I’d like to give credit where it’s due, to a Facebook entry by Ron’s first cousin Barbara Wallace Schmidt of Washington State, for getting me focused on the giving part of this so American holiday.
Having grown up in an orthodox Jewish home (well, modern orthodox), I learned from a very young age that philanthropy (tzedakah) isn’t about extra credit. It’s an obligation. The window sill over our kitchen sink was the home of five or six tin boxes, called pushkas, into which my Dad deposited his pocket change each night after work. Periodically, a representative of one of the charities that distributed these pushkas would stop by to collect them, have a cup of tea and something sweet with the lady of the house, and leave a bright new empty box to be filled up again.
And then there were the naming opportunities. Maybe we Jews didn’t invent this concept, but we sure as hell perfected it. There’s not a tree in Israel or a toilet stall in a Jewish nursing home that doesn’t bear a plaque with the name of the donor whose funds paid for it. With my dimes, brought every week to Sunday school (Hebrew School was on weekdays, and then we wrapped up all that learning plus on Sunday mornings), I must have filled dozens of folded cards with enough slots for two dollars worth of dimes that could then be turned into my very own tree for Israel.
It’s been many years since I saw my Dad empty his pockets into those pushkas and I put my dimes (which I would have preferred to spend on candy) into the “plant a tree” card, but I remember them like they were yesterday. The Hebrew term for philanthropy is tzedakah, literally fairness or justice, and we learned it young and continuously where I grew up.
And lest you think that all philanthropy is equal, Maimonides offers a hierarchy of giving, with the first item listed being the most worthy form, and the last being the least worthy. I find it interesting that the most worthy form is to help a person in need to become not only self-sufficient but also to join the circle of tzedakah in their own right, not unlike the later Christian notion of teaching a man to fish. Translated from Maimonides:
- Giving an interest-free loan to a person in need; forming a partnership with a person in need; giving a grant to a person in need; finding a job for a person in need; so long as that loan, grant, partnership, or job results in the person no longer living by relying upon others.
- Giving tzedakah anonymously to an unknown recipient via a person (or public fund) which is trustworthy, wise, and can perform acts of tzedakah with your money in a most impeccable fashion.
- Giving tzedakah anonymously to a known recipient.
- Giving tzedakah publicly to an unknown recipient.
- Giving tzedakah before being asked.
- Giving adequately after being asked.
- Giving willingly, but inadequately.
- Giving in sadness (it is thought that Maimonides was referring to giving because of the sad feelings one might have in seeing people in need as opposed to giving because it is a religious obligation; giving out of pity).
I think that this view of giving, of philanthropy, of tzedakah is the flip side of the Jewish notion of success. We believe (at least those of us who haven’t gone so far off the rails as to believe their own press releases — but that’s another story) that your successes are not solely of your own making and that one should not take too much credit for them. As it happens, we are all either blessed or cursed by the good fortune of our birth and by the good fortune, the mazel, that has accompanied our journey through life. Born in the US? Mazel. Born healthy, intelligent, and loved? Mazel. Wanted by two reasonably together and prepared parents? More mazel. Managed to get through school, university, life-to-date without dread diseases, terrible accidents, loss of your freedom or life in civil unrest? Pure mazel.
What you build on top of all that good luck through your own hard work and perseverance is absolutely yours for which to take credit, but it’s important to remember just how much of what we become, of who we are, and of what we have is just plain dumb good luck. Thinking about life this way, as a three-legged stool (the good fortune of our birth, the good fortune of our lives, and what we ourselves accomplish through our own efforts) of which we only control one leg, makes clear why tzedakah is an obligation for those of us whose stools have three good legs.
And now for the thanks part of this post. My list doesn’t change much over time, but my appreciation for these blessings has grown so much over the years. For those of you who haven’t started your list, here’s mine for Thanksgiving 2011:
- Ron Wallace — if you haven’t met The Wallace, you’re in for a treat. He’s smart (and never flaunts his far greater intellect than mine), beyond funny (especially when doing those imitations of all the satellite systems he’s helped design), kind to everyone even when they’re not, 150% behind me in everything I do, an enthusiastic dancer, able to design/fix anything electronic/mechanical/plumbing/etc., infinitely patient, very slow to get anywhere close to angry, doesn’t complain no matter how ill/uncomfortable he is, shares my love of travel/adventure/British mystery DVDs/boating/the list of shared interests is very long, understands my need to “fly” solo at times, never asks me what anything costs (knowing I won’t go overboard even when we’re buying me great jewelry), likes many of my friends and is happy to have them travel with us, provides full infrastructure support so that I can pursue my dream career and other interests, still a hunk after all these years (Ron went through college on gymnastics scholarships), and thinks I’m the best thing that ever happened to him. What more could any woman want?
- Friends and family who are also friends — I value friendship above diamonds, and those who know me realize that’s high value indeed. No one gets through life unscathed, no one! And it’s your friends who not only share your triumphs but will also see you through the really tough times. You know who you are.
- Good health and great health insurance — Ron and I have watched the whole health care reform discussion with just one point of view: everyone should be as free from worry about their health care costs as we have been, even as we’ve battled a number of expensive health issues. I can’t even imagine having to fight with an insurance company in order to get what Ron needed when he was diagnosed a few years back with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He’s fine now, but the bills were enormous and would have broken even our generous budget if not for great coverage. And I’ve had so many joint repairs that the staff at the surgical center know me on sight, and that’s only the beginning of what aging has done to my lambada. But thanks to Ron’s NASA career, we’ve got the same kind of private insurance our Congressmen have, converted now to our supplemental plan while Medicare is primary. We’d like to see everyone have this level of financial protection and peace of mind, but what do we know about health care? For the record, Medicare is income adjusted so I’m paying a ton for it, and that’s entirely fair.
- My career, clients and colleagues — I’ve had an amazing run, and the best is yet to come. Imagine being in on the very ground floor of the use of computers in business and still being able to contribute? For those of you worried about your career, and who isn’t in these trying times, please take heart. There’s always opportunity for those who are willing to work their butts off, invest in their KSAOCs, and do the heavy lifting. To all the colleagues and clients from whom I’ve learned so much, and those yet to come, I’m very grateful for the opportunities and hope I’ve given as good as I’ve gotten. And I’d like to say a special thank you to my much younger colleagues who have welcomed this digital immigrant with open minds.
- The accident of birth — I come from pioneer stock. My grandparents were refugees (aren’t all Jews?) from a shtetl in Lithuania. They came to the USA at the turn of the 20th century to avoid conscription into the Czar’s non-kosher army as well as to escape the pogroms. Like every American except our native Americans, we’re all refugees of one sort or another, even those who think they’re special because they came first or brought some wealth with them. Were it not for my grandparents having the courage to leave the familiar behind, to make what was then quite literally a trek across Europe to get bilge (they thought steerage was first class) passage to the USA, to arrive with no English and just the bundles they carried to a gentile America which was still quite hostile to Jews, I would never have had the opportunities that so many of us take for granted. Freedom isn’t free, and democracy isn’t a birthright, so count your blessings that you’re here — and thank those who never rest so that we can.
- Our military and their families, our first responders, those who work the midnight shifts in emergency rooms, there are so many who won’t be having as peaceful or comfortable a Thanksgiving as you and I will have. My thanks to every one of them.
Although Thanksgiving isn’t really a religious holiday, I think it’s prayer-worthy. So here’s mine for all of us. Life is short, fragile and amazing; live large. G-d willing (now we’re back to mazel) we’ll live long and prosper and be the life of the party at the old farts home.