In American culture, November begins the Season of Giving leading up to December and the glorious Birth of Christ. Those that have the financial means generally highlight these months with excessive eating and maybe exorbitant gifts for loved ones. Some maybe even donate money or other items to those in need. The Season of Giving is marked by spending for consumption (think Black Friday) as well as giving money to further causes you support (think Giving Tuesday).
As we enter this season, I invite you to read the following article written by Rabbi Jason Bonder with the hope of fostering a deeper understanding of the dynamic relationship between faith and finances. In the article, Rabbi Bonder shares,
“One of the most foundational lessons I learned in Lake Institute’s Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising (ECRF) course is that as children, we learn lessons from our families, our communities, our cultures, and our religions, all of which help us to shape our worldview. It is from those lessons that we figure out how to categorize our world. Often in American culture, we are taught that topics like money, religion, and politics don’t belong in polite conversation. Furthermore, money and religion don’t belong together. No one has to explicitly tell us this because it can easily be learned through behaviors and cues. Sometimes our worldviews help us. Other times, they hold us back.”
This holiday season, we will undoubtedly follow traditions set by our families, influenced by the lessons we have learned that shape our worldview. Do you, like Rabbi Bonder, feel cognitive dissonance between matters of faith and matters of money? If so, I invite you to use this holiday season as an opportunity to reframe the “Season of Giving” beyond November and December and to celebrate “giving” as a way of life, connecting faith and finances in a tangible way. Enjoy this holiday season and be encouraged in your generosity of spirit by these words: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:38, NIV)
Happy Thanksgiving and Be Blessed,
Gayle Spicer – CTS Director of Annual Giving
One of These Things is Not Like the Other
by Rabbi Jason Bonder, as written for Lake Institute on Faith & Giving
If you ever find yourself reading an ancient religious text and the words on the page suddenly prompt you to think of Sesame Street, you might be a religious leader and you might be a parent of young children. I am both. As a dad and a rabbi, the content I consume often oscillates between ancient Jewish texts and children’s television. It is a rare occurrence, however, when Sesame Street helps me to understand the ancient texts. This is one of those times.
The 1st Century rabbi, Elazar ben Azariah says in Pirkei Avot – Ethics of the Fathers:
“Where there is no Torah, there is no right conduct; where there is no right conduct, there is no Torah.
Where there is no wisdom there is no reverence; Where there is no reverence, there is no wisdom.
Where there is no understanding, there is no knowledge; where there is no knowledge, there is no understanding.
Where there is no flour, there is no Torah; where there is no Torah, there is no flour.”
When I finished reading this set of statements, verses from a very famous Sesame Street song popped into my head: “One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn’t belong.”
For the majority of this beautiful teaching, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah talks of ideas. He is teaching about elusive goals towards which we can aspire like wisdom and reverence. He prompts his students to consider what it means to truly understand something. And then… flour? How could that possibly belong here?
I can imagine Elazar ben Azariah presenting this for the first time in the study hall. In my mind I can almost see his subtle grin as he anticipates the confused look on his students’ faces followed by the frantic questions. What does food have to do with Torah? And how can Torah produce food? Is Rabbi Elazar in the right classroom? Is this a lesson on ethics or agriculture? I think the last line, “Where there is no flour, there is no Torah, where there is no Torah, there is no flour.” is meant to help us shift our perspective.
One of the most foundational lessons I learned in Lake Institute’s Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising (ECRF) course is that as children, we learn lessons from our families, our communities, our cultures, and our religions, all of which help us to shape our worldview. It is from those lessons that we figure out how to categorize our world. Often in American culture, we are taught that topics like money, religion, and politics don’t belong in polite conversation. Furthermore, money and religion don’t belong together. No one has to explicitly tell us this because it can easily be learned through behaviors and cues. Sometimes our worldviews help us. Other times, they hold us back.
I knew Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah’s teaching long before taking the ECRF, but now I see it in a completely different light. Before the course, shaped by my experiences, I had always read this teaching as a description of an unfortunate reality: that without flour – often translated less literally to mean bread, sustenance, or money – there is no Torah. I understood the teaching to mean that money was a necessary evil to pursue more worthy causes. Now I see in this teaching an attempt to break down a barrier that was previously constructed in my mind. Religious teaching and proper behavior, wisdom and reverence, knowledge and understanding, and yes, money and religious teaching, can all be categorized together. They are four examples of pairs that complement one another.
Placing items and ideas into groupings is essential to our understanding of the world. But breaking down barriers between them can allow us to see the world in ways we had not seen before. I hope this fundamental shift of seeing fundraising as an integral part of religion, and not just of religious institutions, will have a positive impact on my synagogue and on houses of worship around the world. But there is one more unexpected lesson I learned when Sesame Street and Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah were rolling around in my head at the same moment.
I was thinking about how different Sesame Street is today from when I used to watch the program. Today, with the rise of streaming services, my children rarely see a commercial. They are blown away when I tell them that once upon a time you had to wait a full 90 seconds or more for the show you were watching to return to the screen. It was at that moment that another line popped into my brain. This one came with no musical accompaniment. It wasn’t from Sesame Street directly. Rather, it was the line shared by PBS after they rolled the credits. “This program was made possible by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you.” At the end of each episode of Sesame Street I watched, back when I was learning the values and norms that would shape my outlook on life, I consistently heard that line. It could have easily also been said, “Without contributions, there is no Sesame Street. Without Sesame Street, there are no contributions.” It’s a line that would have made that first-century rabbi, Elazar ben Azariah, very proud.
This article was published in the March 2022 edition of Insights Newsletter. Rabbi Jason Bonder is the Associate Rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, PA. He and his wife, Rina, have two young children, Mark and Sophie. His favorite Sesame Street characters are Grover and Guy Smiley. You can read the full article and additonal reflections as they originally appeared on the Lake Institute of Faith & Giving’s website by clicking here.