What are the Limits to a Giving Heart, and Wallet?
[From the Tzedaka’s Present Column]
By Moshe Hecht
Personally, I’m a huge fan of all-you-can-eat buffets. Boundless, uninhibited intake of my favorite foods with no limits. I’m in! If only it would end with that same feeling of pleasure. But it usually ends with an overwhelming feeling of being full to capacity and the thought of “why did i eat so much – I can’t breathe!” Likewise, the same goes with every physical overindulgence in this world. At some point it can just become excessive. After all, we only have one stomach, we can only be in one lavishly furnished room at a time, we can only drive one car at a time and so on. So we can all agree that there are limits.
But what about giving? Is there a limit to how much we can give away? Is there a cap on how much Tzedaka we can give? Is gluttonous chesed something we need to avoid? Or are there no bounds to a giving heart and hand?
The answer is yes, and absolutely not, simultaneously.
In a talk given by the Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson obm) in the summer of 1984 he enlightens us in this regard. After what seems to be a contradictory approach between Maimonides and the Alter Rebbe, on the verse “al yivazves yoiser m’choimseh” – “Do not carelessly expend more than a fifth [of your earnings]” a lengthy discussion ensues. There are the various opinions of the application of this adage. What is The Talmud actually teaching us here? The Rebbe, in his infinite wisdom, concludes that there are essentially three levels of giving, and explains in depth the scenarios in which you would apply each of the levels to your life. And ends, in his classic pertinent lesson..
His train of thought is as follows:
1. “Al yivazvez yoiser m’choimesh: Don’t give more than?
We start with the basics. To fulfil the foundational mitzvah of tzedakah and to be considered a “good Jew” we should not give more than a 1/5 – more than that, in a typical situation would be irresponsible. “Yivazve” alludes to “waste” or squandering money. Why? The torah is worried that whilst we may be in a bull economy today, the bearish markets are always right around the corner and then what?! We cannot say for certain where we will be financially tomorrow.
2. Give more than 1/5 – but not everything
Whilst the first explanation is about fulfilling the mitzvah correctly, the second addresses real poverty. When someone in dire need comes to you it is incumbent upon you to give more. If by Divine Providence, G-d sent a poor man to you, the message is clear, it is obligatory to give more than the minimum requirement. You’ve been chosen. Maimonides describes this as “mida chassidut” – going above and beyond the letter of the law. It is fair to say that in our modern era the opportunities of midas chassidus are endless. We are well aware and can not hide from the vast needs of society. The world is just too small for that, we cannot be ostriches. Ubiquitous poverty is undeniable. So the entire world is at our doorstep, knocking, pleading for our help. But this has its limits as well. We should give more than a 1/5. But not everything. We must make sure that one’s basic needs are fully taken care of. A home, food, clothing etc. If only to be able to continue a life of giving.
3. Give it all!
Imagine, G-d forbid, a person needs a life-saving heart surgery. The doctor tells you that the surgery is going to cost you every single penny you have.
Well, if you’re like me, you’ll obviously try to negotiate. But if your doctor is in no mood of your chutzpah, no one in their right mind would not unload every last penny they have to cure themselves of a life threatening, physical malady. And here my friends, is the billion dollar question. Would you do the same for a spiritual malady? Historically, when we would sin, the Torah commands us to fast in order to rid us of the “spiritual infection.” This was back when all-you-can-eat-buffets were non-existent and frequent fasting was the norm. But, unfortunately, we are a generation that is too physically weak to fast for days on end. The most we can do today is a few fast days sporadically spread out over the course of a year like Yom Kippur, Tisha B’av etc. Even more so the millennial trend of intermittent fasting – i.e. skipping breakfast, definitely does not count as fasting the traditional Jewish way. But we have to face reality, and admit that fasting for our sins is just not feasible. Let’s not try to fight it. On a micro level, perhaps there are some really pious ones among us, but I would venture to say that on a macro level, our society is a bit less spiritually sturdy. A bit “under the weather.” So how, in this generation, do we atone for our sins in a tangible way?
The Alter Rebbe says a fascinating thing. We should give charity in the place of fasting! And – here’s the kicker – as there is no calculation or evaluation for a life threatening physical disease, similarly our spiritual healing should be equally infinite and unmeasured. Tending to our spiritual health is essential and being honest about our need for atonement is crucial. So we will give and give generously without computing and assessing. We open ourselves up to complete and total forgiveness through our generosity.
The Two Way Street
Finally, The Rebbe concludes that just as we are obliged to to give to others. G-d should do the same for us. And how much should Gd give us? Not level one and not even level two. NO! Chassidus teaches that G-d is with us in Golus, locked up with his children, experiencing the greatest malady of all; exile. In order to combat that sickness G-d cannot make calculations with His blessings. He too must come out of the confines of golus by “giving it all away” to redeem himself, and his children along with him. When we give without restraint to atone for our spiritual maladies, G-d will mirror our behavior and grant us the ultimate benevolence; redemption, may it be speedily in our times. So give without holding back. G-d will do the same. An all-you-can-devour-spiritual-buffet of epic proportions.
Moshe Hecht is a philanthropy futurist, public speaker and chief innovation officer of Charidy, a crowdfunding platform and consulting company that has helped 2000 organizations raise over a half billion dollars. Moshe is an accomplished entrepreneur whose passion lies at the intersection of technology and charitable giving. His articles have been published in publications such as Forbes, Nonprofit Quarterly and eJewishPhilanthropy. When Moshe is not at the office, he is writing music and enjoying downtime with his wife and three redheaded children.
This piece is the latest addition to Tzedaka’s Present: A column on current and future giving trends and oppurtunities.