“Guys,” I said at dinner. “You know how every year on the first night of Hanukkah, we send gifts to kids on the Pine Ridge Reservation instead of getting gifts ourselves?”
Their mouths were filled with beans and their hands with burritos, but there was nodding and grunting. I pressed on, taking advantage of their momentary inability to object. “Well, I was thinking this year–since we have everything we need and some of the things we want–instead of doing eight nights of gifts, we could do eight nights of tikkun olam.”
“Yeah!” 7-year-old Benjamin exclaimed through a not-quite-finished mouthful.
“Do you know what tikkun olam means?” I asked.
“Yes. It’s ‘healing the world.’”
“Like in the Rebecca books!” That was his 5-year-old sister. It’s all about the American Girl books with Lilah.
This was going better than I expected. We tossed around some ideas, like donating a Thanksgiving dinner or visiting a retirement home. Nine-year-old Zachary, however, was uncharacteristically quiet.
The idea had been inspired by bumper stickers that are popular in my Boston suburb. “Do you tikkun olam?” I pull up at stoplights behind these stickers at least three times a week. My reaction is always pretty much the same.
I give to charity. I hold the door open for people and use canvas bags and compost. However, it doesn’t feel like enough. The vast majority of my days are spent living my life while feeling confident that tomorrow my kids will have access to fresh fruit and dental care.
More importantly, I’m doing a mediocre job teaching my kids to heal the world. We did the Walk for Hunger last year. They put a portion of their allowance aside to give to charity, and once they held a lemonade stand to help fund a homeless man’s move into an apartment. But, for the most part, the kids don’t know about our donations to Oxfam and Save the Children.
This is why my husband and I decided to ask our children to sacrifice a little to help others. Well, a little from an adult perspective. It looms pretty large from a child’s point of view.
We’re getting into that time of year during which our society seems based almost exclusively around the consumption of vast quantities of plastic toys and electronic items. Children go to school and talk about their gifts, which we tell them not to do but we all know they do anyway. This is when the lights get twinkly and the malls get nasty.
I love the happiness and peace Christmas brings some of my Christian friends. I have friends for whom Advent is a time of spiritual reflection and others who see distant relatives or reconnect with their loved ones. It’s a beautiful, meaningful holiday for many people. However–and I know I’m not alone in saying this–the frantic push to buy, buy, buy with ever-increasing urgency makes me want to curl up in a ball in the back of my closet and sing Maoz Tzur until January.
Buying my children lots of crap during this time of year feels like I’m subscribing to the happy-holidays-really-means-buy-Christmas-gifts school of thought. So, we asked our children to say “no” to stuff and “yes” to tikkun olam.
During that first dinner conversation, my younger two were enthusiastic about the idea. Zachary, however, still seemed to be mulling it over.
Finally, he spoke up. “We could donate books!” It had taken him a few minutes to respond because he had been thinking about what he would hope for if he had only some of what he needs and very little of what he wants.
They’re in–all of them. Eight days of tikkun olam instead of eight days of presents.
A week later, I was brushing Lilah’s hair after her bath and she mused quietly to herself, “We’re not getting anything for ourselves for Hanukkah. We’re getting things for other people.”
“That’s right, baby.”
She looked up at me. “We’re going to heal the world a little bit.”
“Yes, yes we are.”
Her eyes widened into a smile. “We could go to a soup kitchen and bring bread. Like in the Kit books!”