(This is based on the sermon from Friday, Nov. 18, 2011)
This Thursday we will gather to celebrate the most American of holidays. The next morning some of us will sleep in while others will wake early to take advantage of “Black Friday” deals.
Ask most people where the name “Black Friday” comes from, and they will cite it as the biggest shopping day of the year, the day on which retailers begin to turn a profit and are finally “in the black”. As one source puts it, “back in the day when accounting records were kept by hand, red ink indicated financial loss or black ink indicated profit, thus coining the popular fiscal terms of being “in the red” or “in the black”.
That actually isn’t the case. In fact, according to Snopes.com, “…originally the phrase was a derisive term applied by police and retail workers to the day’s plethora of traffic jams and badly behaved customers. The term “Black Friday” originated in Philadelphia before 1966, and it began to see broader use outside Philadelphia around 1975. It was only later that the alternative explanation related to sales and profit began to be offered.”
Regardless of its origins, this Friday people will wake up earlier than usual to make sure that they are part of the experience. They will stand in line with great anticipation, and then they will reach into their pockets to share some of their hard earned cash with others.
The National Retail Association estimates that over $4 billion will be spent on gifts this holiday season. That’s a big number, but there is another big number that is worth considering: Three quarters of that over $400 billion is estimated to be spent on unwanted items that will be re-gifted or simply unused. [need source] In other words, up to $300 billion in gifts aren’t even something that the recipients want, let alone need. Those gifts provide a moment of excitement, or disappointment, when first opened … and then nothing more. Those gifts won’t enhance the recipient’s life, and they certainly don’t do any good in the world.
I like gifts as much as the next person, but perhaps we need to rethink the balance and direct some of our part of that $4 billion toward doing something that will make a difference.
The number of organizations that can benefit from such philanthropy is tremendous. But even more powerful than our individual gift is the way our actions can be expanded when done as part of a larger community.
What if, for example, this year each of our households were to pick an issue and not only donate to it, but also promote it within our Temple community. It could be as simple as sending us an email that says,
“For Chanukah this year we made a family donation to ___ organization in place of a gift one night. As part of that gift we want to tell you about the organization, why we picked it, how they do good in the world and how you too can get involved.”
And there are so many issues, causes and organizations from which to choose! Women’s rights, environmental care, fair farming practices, support for battered children, support for battered women, reducing homelessness, clean water for Third World countries, clean water for us as a new bill seeks to reduce the impact of current legislation… all of which are important issues that have far-reaching impact not only on our lives but on the lives of so many others.
And the opportunities to let our desire to give extend beyond ourselves is everywhere. Here’s one example:
A few weeks ago, one of our b’nai mitzvah, Adam Present, did a mitzvah project that involved support for NJ SEEDS, an organization that aids academically talented but financially limited youth so they might get the best education possible. Adam wanted his mitzvah project to extend beyond himself, so he requested his peers make donations to NJ SEEDS in honor of his bar mitzvah in lieu of gifts. Through the generosity of his friends and their families, Adam has already raised ~$6000 for NJ SEEDS.
The ripple effect of what any one of us can do when it is done within community is tremendous.
Hillel taught,”If I am not for myself who will be for me, but if I am only for myself what am I?”
We have a long Jewish tradition of striking a balance between looking out for our own community and reaching out to those who we may never meet. If we only give to Jewish organizations, we are being far too self-focused, but if we only give to non-Jewish organizations our community will falter. After all, the majority of those giving to Jewish organizations are Jews. So the first question that needs to be asked is, “What is the right balance between our giving within the Jewish community and within the world at large?”
In other words, how do we strike the right balance? How do we choose the organizations to which we give, and how do we take what we are willing and able to do and leverage our commitment by getting others involved?
Striking the right balance is what I’d like to encourage this year, and I would love to see members of our community using our Temple website, our Temple blog, and our Temple Facebook page to share their answers to those questions.
There is a debate in the Talmud with regard to how one should properly light the Hanukkah menorah. There is one train of thought that suggests we begin with eight candles and the nine candles for lighting and reduce by one candle each day. There is another train of thought that has us begin with just one candle and the additional light for lightning and increase by one candle each day so that there are just two lights the first night but nine burning on the last night. Obviously tradition sided with the latter approach, and we begin with two candles and go to nine. The compelling aspect of this is the ultimate reason given for the decision. As it says in our sacred text, “in matters of holiness we should always be in the process of increasing the light”.
This Thursday we will gather with our families and give thanks in the most American of traditions. The next day huge numbers of people will participate in another American tradition; shopping ’til they drop. And a short time later we will begin to light the Hanukkah lights. This year let’s begin a bit early by doing our part to add a bit of holiness each day to a world that certainly can use all the help it can get.