An Attitude of Gratitude—The Tzedakah Connection

Dale Sides Cooperman and Idie BenjaminDale Sides Cooperman and Idie Benjamin

 “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”
Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who

Everywhere we turn someone has posted, shared, and tweeted some take on this year’s Thanksgivukkah.  There have been some clever comments, amusing songs, poems, jokes, etc. We really do have a sense of humor.  And as educators of young children, we can see the how this event is ripe for thought as to how to bring relevance and meaning to this combination of celebrations.  However, we are concerned about what will young children will take away from this unique convergence of holidays.

 What if young children think that Thanksgiving + Hanukkah = Giving thanks + Getting Stuff?  Or giving thanks for getting stuff?  How does the acquisition of “stuff” support any value we may want to encourage?

When a Jewish child is born, he or she is welcomed into the Jewish community with this blessing:

May this child….become great.  Even as he/she has been introduced into the covenant, so may he/she be introduced to the Torah, to the marriage canopy, and to a life of good deeds. 

From the beginnings of their lives, we offer our children a blessing that they will be introduced to a life of good deeds.  We hold our infant children and have many hopes for them.  Judaism teaches us that we should hope that they do good deeds, gemilut hasadim, acts of living kindness and that they be introduced to this idea from the beginning of their lives.  This year’s calendar has us thinking about how and when we introduce children to the mitzvah and good deed of tzedakah. 

 Tzedakahצדקה -is the Hebrew for a concept that is often translated as charity and involves giving money and help to the poor. “Charity” comes from the Latin root “to care.”  It is something a person does voluntarily. However, the Jewish concept of tzedakah is very different.  The word “tzedakah” comes from a root that means justice. Giving tzedakah is an act of righteousness and a mitzvah, an obligation.

In the Torah/Bible, we are taught, “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live.” (Deut. 16:20)  Even those who receive tzedakah are expected to give to those even less fortunate than they are. Tzedakah is so important that according to the High Holiday liturgy, it is considered one of the three acts that can change our fate.

Judaism does not say that we cannot have our stuff and enjoy it, too. Making a living and making our families comfortable is also a mitzvah.  However, with that comes the obligation of teaching our children to be grateful for what they have and share some of it with others.  Having “an attitude of gratitude” is part of being a mensch.  Judaism encourages us to count our blessings and appreciate all in the goodness in our lives.

Gratitude requires an understanding of others.  We know that young children are egocentric, seeing the world only from their perspective.  We have all seen how difficult it can be for a child to relinquish the gift their family is bringing to the holiday toy drive.  Giving away an interesting toy just doesn’t make sense.

However, “emerging research points to gratitude as a potential bridge between students’ academic and social well-being.  Studies show that grateful youth have higher GPAs; experience more positive emotions; and, ultimately go on to live more meaningful lives….practicing gratitude at a young age promotes later development of self-control and self regulation….” (“Tapping Into the Power of Gratitude,” ASCD Education Update, November 2013)

Empathy is not an easy concept for young children to grasp.  But research and our own experiences have taught us that empathy can be learned and that empathy should be taught.  Until they can internalize this abstraction on their own, we gently teach and model that there are others less fortunate and that we have the super power of being able to do something about it.

We start with the simple explanation: “We are helping people.” Our ongoing hope is that as they learn, any extrinsic reward becomes intrinsic – a part of the fabric of who they are.  An understanding develops that they can, do, and should make a difference in the way they offer help to people are in need and that giving money is one of those ways.

Money is an abstract concept for children, and it will take years for them to completely understand what it means.  We sow the seeds for understanding by explaining what money is for and how we get it.  In the classroom, when we show children what we use money to buy, we can sow the seed and tell them that there are people who don’t have enough money to buy these same things.  We are lucky, because there are Jewish ways to help. Tzedakah is one way.

Each time we give a young child a few coins to put into a pushke, a tzedakah box, we are getting them into the tzedakah giving habit.  We have heard teachers say that it makes no sense for children to put those coins in the box.  It isn’t their money.  They are just taking money from their parents or a penny from a teacher, so it doesn’t count.  We could not disagree more.  We begin teaching all kinds of good behaviors to young children before they are old enough to “get” it – washing hands, not picking noses, saying thank you, picking up their toys, etc., etc., etc.  What better habit to get into than helping others? And at the same time, aren’t we also teaching this same value to our families by suggesting they get into the tzedakah habit as well?

Besides weekly putting coins in a can, how do we teach gratitude, empathy, and tzedakah? It is common at Thanksgiving to ask the children in our classes what are they thankful for.  Counting our blessings should not be a once a year activity.  Each day is full of teachable moments when adults can model this as an opportunity to be thankful and to express gratitude. After all, being thankful must not be very important if we only do it once a year.  What are we thankful for? Everything from the sublime to the ridiculous – from markers to saltine crackers, from snacks to a goodbye hug, from bubbles to blocks, from bunnies to smiles, and everything in between.

Some families have started a practice of doing a “gratitude inventory”every Friday night at the Shabbat table or nightly as a bedtime ritual. Your class can do this too as part of its Shabbat celebration.  Every week in Dale’s class the children would add a page to the classroom “Blessing Book,” where each child would draw a picture and write about something they were grateful for that week.  That group of children got the message, and that attitude of gratitude pervaded the classroom.  They understood that they made the world – even the small world of our classroom – a better and more supportive place to be.

No matter how small he or she is, a child can be a menschMensch is the Yiddish word that has come to mean a very good person, someone who we admire because of her/his character. When we create opportunities for us and our children to do good, they are living the middah/value of gemilut hasadim, acts of loving kindness. Although these concepts may be difficult for young children to understand, beginning the conversation when they are young plants the seeds of later, deeper understanding.

 Remember – A person’s a person, no matter how small.”