Not infrequently, I receive envelopes in the mail with printed words on the front: “Help us in our time of need!” “Don’t let them shut our doors!” “Yidden! Have compassion!”
The enclosed letters are an emotional appeal that the recipient should send money to their tz’dakah organization because they are undergoing a financial crisis. The bold letters and exclamation points are meant to tug at our heart strings so that we realize the severity of the situation. The hope is that we will donate more than we otherwise might have.
Yoni Halper, a friend who is a marketing guru and a financial consultant, explained to me that this approach is mistaken. The bottom line is that no one wants to be part of a losing team. In addition, people want to feel that their magnanimity is accomplishing something. If they are giving away their hard-earned money for charity, they want to feel that they are, literally, getting the most bang for their buck. When people read that the situation is so dire, they wonder how effective their personal donation can be. Is it even worth giving anything when the organization needs so much just to stay afloat? And even if they weather this crisis, they’ll likely be back in the same financial crunch in a few months.
Yoni noted that the better approach would be to promote the success of the organization, and how much they have accomplished. They should also demonstrate how each donation helps them further this incredible cause. The goal is that people give, not because they were guilted into feeling that they have to, but because they want to. When they recognize the value of the organization and the merit of being part of it, they will be happy to be part of its great work.
I was thinking about this idea this week, as Elul is about to begin. It’s clear that one of our greatest challenges today is with self-esteem. A culture that overemphasizes and values wealth, fame, and prestige leaves most people feeling lowly and insignificant. Besides, what kind of internal satisfaction can people have when they are valued for externalities?
Rabbi Yaakov Meir Schechter writes that the challenge of feeling melancholy is the foremost challenge of our times. So many people feel downcast and unworthy – emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.
The cry of the shofar that begins in Elul seems to only further embed these negative feelings in people’s consciousness. “It’s time to do t’shuvah because I’ve wasted another year not learning enough, not davening enough, not being a good enough spouse/parent/friend...”
It’s no wonder that people want to hibernate from Elul until after Yom Kippur. It’s as if we present ourselves to Hashem with an emergency appeal: “We’re desperate! We know we are a walking disaster and failure, but we still want to have a good year. So, we’ll try to make sure our spirituality doesn’t go bankrupt. Therefore, please forgive us.” Yikes! Who wants to be part of a losing team?
This whole approach stems from the fact that we don’t value or appreciate ourselves or our accomplishments. Yes, we can all improve, and we have plenty of room for growth. Yes, we have much that we need to rectify. But it’s not because we are in bankruptcy and are begging for underserved clemency. Rather, it’s because we have so much to offer and we want to make sure we aren’t selling ourselves short.
Rabbi Avraham Pam zt”l (whose yahrzeit was this past week, on 28 Av) would say that we shouldn’t refer to the days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur as “Yamim Nora’im – Days of Awe.” Rather, we refer to them as, “Yamim Mufla’im – days of great opportunity.”
Elul begins that process. It is the time of “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li – I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” That is the starting point of the t’shuvah season – feeling and recognizing that we are beloved!
This is the time when we can easily forge a deeper connection with Hashem. We have to recognize that opportunity and have the proper perspective as the starting point as we set out upon the path of t’shuvah.
Everyone wants to be part of a winning team. We should realize that just by showing up and wanting to grow, we are on the winning team.