In our fast-paced interconnected world, it can be so hard to do a good deed in a truly selfless way. When we run a marathon for charity and post about it on social media in order to encourage donations, we are all too often more interested in counting the “Likes” from friends than the money we’re raising for the cause.
This behavior leads me to believe that perhaps the closest we can come to achieving true selflessness is through focusing on the good we leave behind for future generations. Such a legacy will allow them to reap the benefits of our actions long after we have passed on, and long after we stand to benefit in any way from the benevolence of our act—the ultimate demonstration of altruism.
With Tu B’Shevat (the “New Year for Trees”) on the horizon—the holiday takes place from Jan. 20-21 this year—I am reminded of the well-known Talmudic tale about the encounter between the sage Choni HaMa’agel (the “Circle-Maker”) and a young man planting a tree (Ta’anit 23b). As the young man secures the sapling in the ground, Choni looks on curiously, wondering why he is making such an effort for this type of tree, which will take around 70 years to bear fruit. “How can you be sure that you will live another 70 years, long enough to derive benefit from this tree?” he inquires. Without skipping a beat, the man replies: “Just as my ancestors planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my descendants. Everyone should merit being born into a world full of trees.”
This story highlights the importance of thoughtfulness, forward-thinking and generosity. At the same time, it underscores the very essence of Jewish continuity.
Traditionally, Jewish continuity has been viewed through the lens of the family unit, defined primarily by one’s commitment to raise a Jewish family. This narrow scope, however, negates the transcendental echo left by the indelible impression we leave on everyone that we encounter. To connect our present to both our past and collective future, we must ensure that we leave behind a world that our descendants will be proud to inherit.
Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne, two American-born 20th-century academics known for their works on citizenship education, suggest three core components to participatory civic typology: responsibility towards the personal, communal and societal realms (The Politics of Educating for Democracy, 2004). With all that is broken in our world, there is no shortage of opportunities to roll up our sleeves and get to work in all three realms. Service, charity, volunteer work and other selfless acts comprise the ethical element of our gift to the next generation.
In fact, acts of service and benevolence embody core Jewish values that can be traced all the way back to Abraham and Sarah. Our forefather Abraham personifies the three components of Westheimer’s and Kahne’s approach to civic typology: assuming personal responsibility (acts of chesed or lovingkindness, like welcoming visitors to his tent), participation in communal efforts (acts of tzedakah or charity, such as the designation of wells to be used by all who need) and social-justice-oriented activism (acts of tzedek, including lobbying for the righteous citizens of Sodom). His natural ability to exemplify these acts of inherent goodness was the very basis upon which he was chosen to be the progenitor of the Jewish people.
Working diligently to improve our world is an unmistakable hallmark of the Jewish way of life and a contribution that we bestow upon every new generation. Over the last few decades, record numbers of young Jewish men and women have picked up the mantle of service, giving of their time, talents and energies in order to make a positive impact on the world, both in the short- and long-term. These positive acts are often motivated by that same sense of responsibility that has characterized the Jewish people since time immemorial.
Data gathered from several surveys conducted by service organizations has revealed that the vast majority of Jewish volunteers do not mind whether the framework through which they volunteer is Jewish (‘Volunteering + Values Values,’ A Repair the World Report on Young Jewish Adults, June 2011). This service is, of course, impactful for the wider world, but our inability to connect these participants to their Jewish identities through their own passionate benevolent pursuits represents thousands of missed opportunities.
The world of volunteerism and service encapsulates a myriad of entryways back into the organized Jewish world for those hovering on its fringes. Helping them harness and rechannel their passion, energy and sense of communal and societal responsibility is a vital step in reconnecting these young adults with their heritage. As such, contextualizing their service as an inherently Jewish value and as an inseparable part of what it means to be a Jew in the world today could serve as a transformative catalyst for strengthening our collective Jewish future.
The Torah tells us that a person is like “a tree in the field” (Deut. 20:19). Much like a tree, a person needs proper sustenance to grow and thrive. Values anchor us to our moral inheritance and provide us with the nourishment that allows us to reach our potential, eventually bearing fruit that may be shared with the global family of nations.
At a time when identity ties are generally weakening among young people, linking their moral values to our shared destiny could assist in allowing their Jewish identity to flourish. What’s more, Jewish identity is not owned or monopolized by any one particular age, stage or generation. Needs, perspectives and attitudes change and differ from one group to the next. As such, in each epoch, we must find our own unique conduit for connecting with Jewish values. Ultimately, however, these values are eternal with no specific allegiance to one era or another.
In addition to healing the fractured world around us, service experiences can be an essential component in making Jewish identity more relevant to this generation. But it won’t truly take root unless we plant the seeds of Jewish values within the initiatives themselves throughout programming, as well as through preparatory and follow-up reflections and engagement.
As they take part in a range of worthy causes—from natural-disaster relief projects and housing construction drives to food-distribution initiatives and refugee work—young Jews should feel an explicit sense of Jewish rootedness and belonging through the assistance they provide. With the right education and guidance, through giving they can receive a deeper understanding of who they are, and forge a connection with the generations of givers who came before and will come after.
After all, it’s one thing to become an agent of change, but another thing entirely to discover that you are part of an intergenerational story of social activists. By reframing service initiatives through the Jewish lens, we can give young Jews, who may be hoping to become part of something “bigger than themselves,” the greatest gift of all: a reminder that they already are.
We are living in auspicious times. As we approach Tu B’Shevat, we reflect on the long and arduous journey that a seed travels until it becomes a fruit—a lesson also learned from the Talmudic tale of Choni HaMa’agel, where we see that the germination process may take as long as 70 years.
That makes this year—the 70th since the establishment of the modern State of Israel—the perfect opportunity to reap what was sown by previous generations and continue to plant. We must now expand the definition of Jewish continuity and highlight the importance of our ethical legacy by reclaiming service as a core Jewish value.
Rabbi Benji Levy is CEO of Mosaic United, a partnership between Israel and the global Jewish community dedicated to addressing wide-ranging approaches to Jewish engagement and raising the playing field to ensure a stronger Jewish future. A recent oleh from Australia, he previously served as dean of one of the largest Jewish schools in the world, Moriah College.