I never told anyone about my frustration, except perhaps a therapist or two along the way. But recently, I heard a story from my friend Rachel about her daughter, Hannah, who also shares the December birthday dilemma that gave me a new insight about birthday gifts and giving.
After Hannah's third birthday party, Rachel surveyed the room and realized that among the decorations and leftover cake were enough presents to fill a small toy store. And it bothered her that her own child should have so much when there were so many others who have so little. So she came up with a plan that was both ingenious and Jewish-minded to the core.
She told Hannah about all of the children who didn't have any toys for their birthdays or for Chanukah and asked her what she thought they could do to help. With some "gentle parental maneuvering," it didn't take long for Hannah to suggest that she give up a present from the pile on the floor. Hannah chose a Care Bear, a talking doll and a child's tea set, and together mother and daughter re-wrapped the gifts.
A few days later, Rachel drove Hannah to Jewish Family Service with the presents. When Rachel arrived, she asked a staff person if she would tell Hannah about the families who needed the presents and how much it would mean to the children who received them. A few weeks later when Rachel drove past Jewish Family Service, Hannah looked up in recognition and asked her mom, "Do you think the kids are playing with my Care Bear right now?" Rachel nodded and smiled. It was one of those rare and precious moments when being the parent of a toddler seems like the easiest thing in the world to do.
Tzedakah, or the Jewish commandment to give, has been a quintessential Jewish value since the beginning of time. The Torah teaches: "If there is a needy person among you ... you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against him. Rather, you shall open your hand and lend him whatever he is lacking" (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).
Giving tzedakah is one way to achieve tikkun olam, or the Jewish obligation to repair what is broken and lacking in the world. Both affirm our responsibility to give a part of what we have to take care of others who are less fortunate. We do this because Judaism views individual wealth as neither a right nor a privilege but a form of stewardship for which we are charged to care for the world.
Rachel's family began to put money in a tzedakah box every Friday night before Shabbat and Hannah knew that the box was for the people who didn't have toys or food or a place to live. When Hannah was 5, she saw pictures of the victims of Hurricane Katrina on television and came running into the kitchen to find Rachel.
"Mommy," she asked in a worried voice, "don't we need to give our money to the children in the hurricane?"
Rachel emptied out the tzedakah box and took Hannah to the Jewish Federation with more than $80 in change.
It is difficult, almost impossible, to convey to our children how horrible it is for others who live in poverty, and don't have families, friends or resources to turn to for help. Not only is the concept foreign to their lives, but it runs counter to contemporary expectations in today's youth culture of buying more, owning more and having more.
But we can start at an early age like Rachel did with Hannah, by modeling our values and teaching our children the responsibility we have as Jews to care for those in need. And in doing so, we will empower our children with the awareness that they, too, can do something, even at a young age, to make the world a better place.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.