The Comedy and Artistry of Modern Day Philanthropy: A Conversation with Rabbi Simon Jacobson

By Moshe Hecht

Rabbi Simon Jacobson is the author of Toward a Meaningful Life and the Director and Founder of the Meaningful Life Center, which helps the average person find meaning in all that they do.

Watch the clip or read a synopsis of our conversation below.

Interview Clip:

One of the great challenges we deal with in the charity space today is just how guarded people are about their money. What can be done to improve this dynamic?

This question reminds me of a very specific joke: One day, due to some unforeseen circumstances, the roof of a synagogue falls in. As such, its rabbi gets up in front of the congregation and explains the financial situation.

“In order to fix the roof,” he tells them, “We’ll need $100,000.”

“There’s good news and there’s bad news,” he continues, “The good news is that we have the money. The bad news is that it’s in your pockets.”

Through my work funding the Meaningful Life Center and other projects I’ve spearheaded throughout my life, I came to realize that money is the ultimate representation of the ego, or the self, acting as a true symbol of one’s worth. Importantly, it symbolizes the fruits of your energy, and of your ingenuity – essentially, how we value ourselves in modern society.

Effective charity has great power. It is the only thing I know of, which can truly counter the fundamentally egoistic and self-absorbed human personality.

Fighting against that entrenched selfishness is difficult, doing so carries immense benefit. Studies have shown that individuals who give even the slightest amount (the price of a cup of coffee a week, for example) found that they not only felt better, but, also, that they could greater appreciate the acts of kindness surrounding them on a daily basis.

Ironically enough, the studies’ participants quickly realized that acting in a selfless fashion actually gives great benefit to the self, appealing very strongly selfish side of human motivations.

It’s just a matter, however, of getting to the point of recognizing that phenomena. Because of that, I firmly believe that the solution to the problem of getting people to give lies in getting people to recognize the underlying benefits of being a charitable person.

So giving makes us happier, but is the purity of one’s motives important? Are we giving charity or we are helping ourselves?

I firmly believe that the purity of one’s motives don’t matter, especially when the impact of their actions is what we’re concerned about with charity.

According to the Talmud, if somebody loses their money and a person in need finds it, the Mitzvah of giving is still fulfilled. At least in the eyes of G*d, it would seem that motives don’t matter one bit.

Think about how we teach our young kids. At least when we begin to get them to appreciate learning, we offer them rewards for good grades, whether it be a treat or a toy. Eventually, a love for the practice itself is instilled, but it begins from those supposedly “selfish” ulterior motives. Similarly, many adults are motivated to donate to charity because of the accolades they might receive for doing so or the “health” benefits it produces. Once more, those rewards slowly develop a love for giving itself, but it was a love that had initially spawned from the human desire for achieving statuses of honor or a more mindful existence.

First, you help, and then you grow. Giving is a reciprocal relationship that eventually, feeds into and perpetuates itself. Worry more about whether or not people are giving than over whether or not their intentions are entirely pure.

You’ve talked about the implications of charity on the individual and the material world. What about spiritual implications?

I see the mere possibility of engaging in charity to likewise be the possibility of having a partnership with G*d Himself; by making the world a better place through charity, the giver is actively carrying out G*d’s will of kindness and aid to those who need it most.

I always think back to a specific dialogue between King David and G*d:

One day, King David asked G*d a question.

“Why,” he implored, “Did you create the different classes we have in society? Why did you give some people immense wealth, and to others, none?”

“If I created everyone equal,” G*d responded, “Then who would do kindness in this world?”

The Chassidic teachings argue that this indicates that G*d trusted those with wealth, believing that they would be wise enough to share it with others. Fundamentally, it gets at the entire purpose of existence, or the sorting between the challenges and choices that compel one to serve oneself over something greater.

Money merely amplifies that problem, forcing the individual to become wise enough to understand how to turn what is naturally a self-contained, materialistic world into one that is giving.

Moshe Hecht is a philanthropy futurist, public speaker and chief innovation officer of Charidy, a crowdfunding platform and consulting company that has helped 4000 organizations raise over a quarter billion dollars. His articles have been published in publications such as Forbes, Nonprofit Quarterly and eJewishPhilanthropy. @moshehecht @wearecharidy #tzedakaspresent

This piece is the latest addition to Tzedaka’s Present: A column on current and future giving trends and oppurtunities.