Selfishness, the Yetzer Hara and Creativity: A Response to Yossi Prager’s ELI Talk

By Margy-Ruth and Dr. Perry Davis

We’ll start by being grossly unfair: philanthropy is about the virtue of the donor. Charity is focused on the recipient. The philanthropist has a broad view of social ills and change. The recipient of charity has a specific pain.

We make this unfair statement because the very word “philanthropist” already tips the scales towards the needs and rewards of the donor. In his cogent and compelling ELI talk, Yossi Prager is very right to use the contemporary tropes of reward and impact, drive and transformation in the service of giving. What sharper irony is there than to turn the beast of selfishness back on its own self?

One Jewish view is that the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, is closely tied to creativity.

God speaks of the yetzer hara only once, to Cain, the first child of Adam and Eve. “Sin crouches at the door;” God says. “Its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master.” Even after fratricide, Cain goes on to build cities and his children are the first musicians and metal forgers – creative acts, all.

The picture is not so different on the other side of the table. The very same impulses propel the doer, the person with vision who launches an organization or who dives deep into the cause, the one who gives all of herself in the service of social change.

“Founders Syndrome” is paradigmatic of those mixed motives; the identity of the founder. How the founder sees himself is often bound up with the cause.

Personal drive is what shapes agencies and missions. There is no human creation without the fingerprint of its creator.

And as an exercise for the soul – what could be more uplifting that seeing one’s efforts bring about change?

The moment it takes to write a check, the hour it takes to sit through a board meeting: the truth is that these good deeds pale compared to the sacrifices made – of career, income, prestige – by the activist. Yet one cannot act without the other. To be successful, they must be partners, bridging the divides of social class, wealth and outlook.

Yossi correctly suggests that organizations need to take the very human strengths and foibles of the philanthropist into account. We add only that the philanthropist would do well to see the activist through the same lens.

Margy-Ruth and Dr. Perry Davis are the principals of Perry Davis Associates, an international fundraising consulting firm.