Tzedakah, zakat and good deeds

In the very olden days it was traditional, on December 25, for newspapers in many cities to feature front pages encircled by holly leaves and red ribbons, with banner headlines reading “Merry Christmas” or “Peace on Earth.” Another tradition was to carry, on front pages often filled before and after with stories of tragedy, only good news for this one day.

In consideration of the growing numbers of Americans who don’t celebrate Christmas, it’s probably just as well that the local paper doesn’t herald other people’s tidings for a day — assuming there are still readers of actual local papers out there. But imagine a whole page of good news. What good news that would be.

So it was heartening to wake up to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s December 25 front page: Senate passes health reform. Photos of smiling kids, street musician and revelers in Santa hats. A big sister home from Iraq. And on page 9, a banner that reads: Detroit area’s Mitzvah Day getting a boost from Muslims.

Many Jews consider Christmas Day an opportunity to serve their community while Christian neighbors celebrate their holiday. This year, what’s also known as Mitzvah Day in southeast Michigan is getting an added boost from Muslims.

For the first time, about 40 Muslims are expected to join 900 Jews for what they call their largest annual day of volunteering. Leaders say it’s a small but significant step in defusing tensions and promoting goodwill between the religions – particularly on a day that is sacred to Christianity, the third Abrahamic faith.

Mitzvah Day, a nearly 20-year tradition in the Detroit area also practiced in other communities, is so named because mitzvah means “commandment” in Hebrew and is generally translated as a good deed.

The new partnership stemmed from a recent meeting among members of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit – which said it was unaware of any similar Mitzvah Day alliances.

The Jewish groups organize Mitzvah Day, which consists of volunteers helping 48 local social service agencies with tasks such as feeding the hungry and delivering toys to children in need.

Victor Begg, chairman of the Islamic council, said he was seeking a public way for the two faith communities to “build bridges of understanding and cooperation,” which led to joining the Mitzvah Day effort.

Not only are most Muslims and Jews available to serve on Christmas Day, but leaders also recognized a shared commitment to community service. Charity in Judaism is known as tzedakah. In Islam, it’s called zakat.

In the sun-filled park en route to my San Francisco church this morning I passed a soundly sleeping, presumably homeless man. On one side of him was a plastic bag that appeared to contain most of his worldly goods. On the other was a brown bag such as Sunday School children around town decorate for the annual Pack-a-Sack program through which the Food Bank distributes bag lunches to those in need. It had a crayon drawing of Santa Claus and a reindeer or two.

So once again: Peace on earth, goodwill to all.

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/12/25/MNSB1B9FGT.DTL#ixzz0aix6fvXU

Of COURSE there's a Santa Claus

We are, it turns out, born to be believers. And that’s a good thing. According to a recent article by Wall Street Journal reporter Shirley S. Wang, imagination is a valuable asset, beginning in childhood:

Imagination is necessary for learning about people and events we don’t directly experience, such as history or events on the other side of the world. For young kids, it allows them to ponder the future, such as what they want to do when they grow up.

“Whenever you think about the Civil War or the Roman Empire or possibly God, you’re using your imagination,” says Paul Harris, a development psychologist and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies imagination. “The imagination is absolutely vital for contemplating reality, not just those things we take to be mere fantasy.”

So we start out with Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, and grow up to comprehend health reform. As my daughter, a nurse, said to me today, “Really, Mom, I just have to take everyone else’s word for it; there’s no way I can read those thousands of pages.” Nor I — but we are people of (varying) faith.

Although we grown-ups may have gotten realistic about Santa, studies say most of us have faith. Faith in God, Allah, the teachings of the Buddha — doesn’t make a lot of difference. But faith — belief in some power that controls human destiny, belief that doesn’t rely on logical proof — is worth having at any age. Mary McLeod Bethune, a great lady who was smarter than most of us, said, “Without faith, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible.”

Many of us celebrating the babe in the manger this week, along with many who celebrate other happenings and symbols, cling to the belief that there will actually, someday, be peace on earth. Even if it seems impossible.

My son (who is now 50, so don’t tell him I’m still repeating this story) was a true believer child. We had, at our house, a little green elf who arrived on December 1 and spent the next 23 days perched on light fixtures, curtain rods and high cabinet tops; Elf moved around a lot. He watched to see if everyone was good or bad, and on Christmas Eve he flew off to cruise with Santa. One December night, when my son was about 8, possibly older, I was turning out the light as he posed one last question. “Mom,” he said, “I know about Santa Claus, and I know Dad is the Easter Bunny, and all that — but… but how does the elf get from one room to another?”

You gotta believe. We have a health bill, not what we wanted, but the biggest reform in generations and something to build on. The jobless recovery means millions of kids belong to jobless parents, but Santa will come to many of them with the help of a host of community groups. All over the country, Muslim and Jewish volunteers are pitching in to relieve their Christian friends at soup kitchens so the latter can go home and read The Night Before Christmas to their kids.

Peace on earth, goodwill to all.