Rediscovering Our Purpose this Rosh Hashana
by Yossi Prager
Imagine that you had $1,000 in personal funds to give directly to needy people. Would you give it to a single family to cover their grocery bills for five weeks or give $1 each to 1,000 people?
The question may seem purely abstract – a thought experiment – yet your answer might help you to develop a spiritual plan for the coming year. As Rosh Hashana approaches, communal professionals should celebrate our dedication to serving others. At the same time, the holiday provides an occasion for clarifying our spiritual goals and inspiring concrete commitments for the coming year. This thought experiment might help. So, before reading further, answer the opening question in the poll below and mentally outline your reasoning.
Personally, I would choose to give the money to one family (or maybe divide it among a small number of families). I want to have an impact – to meaningfully help people – and giving everyone a dollar does not change anyone’s situation. By contrast, even temporarily relieving the distress of a family uncertain about how to put food on the table seems both useful and satisfying. For this reason, my wife and I tend to divide our charitable dollars among a small number of institutions (our day school and synagogue being at the top of the list, followed by Yeshiva University and social service agencies). At AVI CHAI, I think similarly in terms of cost-effectiveness: how can we most cost-effectively inspire the energizing nucleus of the next generation of American Jews?
The argument for the other side is offered by a 12th century Jew of some renown…. Maimonides. His most famous teaching about Jewish charity relates to the eight levels of tzedaka: the top level is to enable a person to earn his own living. However, Maimonides was also the first I have seen to raise the question of whether to distribute $1,000 (in his case, 1,000 dinar) to one needy person or many. In commenting on a Mishna (Avot 3:18, Kapach edition), Maimonides argues that it is best to give one dinar to 1,000 people rather than make one grand gift. Maimonides’ reasoning is that the grand gift may be effective in alleviating one person’s need in a significant way but will not transform the personality of the giver. By contrast, Maimonides says, the habit developed by 1,000 small, repeated gifts will transform the giver into a more generous person.
Two important perspectives emerge from this statement of Maimonides. First, our character traits develop through small, consistent steps, not grand actions. Second, the purpose of Jewish charity law extends beyond alleviating suffering. We give not only to improve the lives of others but also to improve our own characters. The obligation to develop our personalities derives from the Biblical verse “And you shall follow His ways” (Devarim 28:9), which is understood by the Talmud to mean that we should be merciful, kind and giving people, modeling ourselves on the Divine. It is not enough to give generously when asked; God seeks us to become inherently more generous people, a trait that will carry over into all aspects of our lives.
I was personally confronted by the dissonance between my intuitive sense and the purpose embodied in this Maimonides passage when I presented a paper on trends in Jewish philanthropy. In the talk, I used examples of our decision-making process at AVI CHAI for ensuring that the foundation advances its mission statement. Listening to our professional process and efforts at analytic precision, another speaker at the conference, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein from Israel, raised his hand. He asked, in surprise and concern, “Where is the spirituality in that?”
As I have reflected on Rabbi Lichtenstein’s question, I realize that working at a foundation helping to spend someone else’s money (in my case, Zalman Chaim Bernstein, z”l) provides limited opportunity for the kind of spiritual growth expressed by Maimonides. Will I become a more generous person by giving away Zalman’s money? There are, of course, other spiritual muscles to use at a foundation – becoming empathetic to the needs of individuals or institutions in distress, caring for colleagues and peers – but increasing our “love of man” is harder when staff express the love with resources not their own. The point may extend to other non-profits as well, at least for staff not directly investing their own time and energy in servicing clients. There, too, professionals are drawing a salary to spend money contributed by others.
For me, this raises two questions for me to reflect on for this Rosh Hashana:
- What non-professional ways can I find to instill within myself a habitual generosity of spirit? I have (inconsistently) volunteered to deliver packages to needy people for Tomchei Shabbat. Perhaps I need to do so more regularly. Perhaps my personal charity should involve more regular contact with people in need as well as giving at least something to everyone who solicits me on the street.
- How can I take advantage of other opportunities at work, as a manager and leader, to consistently and habitually improve my own character? In answering this question for myself, I think back to J.J. Greenberg z”l, executive director at the Steinhardt Foundation who tragically died young and whose tenth yahrzeit is coming up. His quirky personality (he had a unicycle in his office and frequently wore a nametag to make others comfortable) blended with a generosity of spirit that involved opening his home to staff and strangers, developing meaningful relationships with students in his extracurricular Hebrew class and picking staples off the floor so as not to burden the clean-up crew. Reading some of the memories contributed by colleagues begins to help me understand how leaders can express and develop their own characters.
The takeaway here is not really the dichotomies – giving to one or many, alleviating suffering v. spiritual growth. While Maimonides’ case is interesting precisely because he posits a case which forces us to choose between competing goals, our real lives provide opportunity for advancing both goals. In fact, the Torah mandates two parallel mitzvot, which are also parallel purposes for our lives: loving our neighbor (which focuses on the needs of the neighbor) and following in God’s path (focusing on the developing spiritual character of the giver/helper). Both are necessary. As professionals in the nonprofit world, we tend to focus most of our attention on the organizational mission, impacting the beneficiaries. Perhaps, as Rosh Hashana approaches, we can balance this important professional perspective with some attention to our own spiritual growth.
I pray that the new Jewish year brings us all good health, success in advancing our professional and personal purposes and the fulfillment of our most lofty dreams. Shana Tova!
Yossi Prager is Executive Director – North America of The AVI CHAI Foundation.