Giving and Getting

Headshot of Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
5772
Headshot of Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

Abner & Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Vice President, American Jewish University

Rabbi Dr Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean's Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is Vice President of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. Rabbi Artson has long been a passionate advocate for social justice, human dignity, diversity and inclusion. He wrote a book on Jewish teachings on war, peace and nuclear annihilation in the late 80s, became a leading voice advocating for GLBT marriage and ordination in the 90s, and has published and spoken widely on environmental ethics, special needs inclusion, racial and economic justice, cultural and religious dialogue and cooperation, and working for a just and secure peace for Israel and the Middle East. A member of the Philosophy Department, he is particularly interested in theology, ethics, and the integration of science and religion. He supervises the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program and mentors Camp Ramah in California in Ojai and Ramah of Northern California in the Bay Area. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, Germany, ordaining Conservative rabbis for Europe. A frequent contributor for the Huffington Post and for the Times of Israel, and a public figure Facebook page with over 53,000 likes, he is the author of 12 books and over 250 articles, most recently Renewing the Process of Creation: A Jewish Integration of Science and Spirit.  Learn more infomation about Rabbi Artson.

posted on July 9, 2012
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

In the realm of biology and chemistry, interactions lead to further interactions, as the energy of one unit creates the response of the next, which in turn launches yet another process. Everything is connected, and everything is part of a series of responses and influences. What goes around comes around.

That same insight - that we are all connected to each other in an intricate web of influence and inspiration is true in the world of tzedakah too. Our gifts are often inspired by gratitude we feel for the blessings that have come our way. And our giving in turn can inspire our beneficiaries that they, too, should remember to give one day.

Today's Torah portion alludes to that network of giving when it speaks of the ancient tzedakah system that was the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Each Israelite would bring an offering to the Temple, and there would select which priest was to be the recipient of the sacrificial gift. The Torah requires that "a person's holy donation shall be his, and what a person gives to the Kohen, it shall be his." On the surface (pshat), the Torah mandates that each donor is permitted to select the beneficiary from among the many priests, even though the donation becomes the property of the entire sanctuary.

But the wonder of Torah is that its nuanced language creates a sacred space for deeper readings, allowing a pathway between humanity and the divine. In this case, it is easily possible that the Hebrew word "ish (person)" refers not to the priest but to the donor. In that case, the Torah is saying that it is precisely that part of our property that we donate to the priest that remains truly ours. The Talmud understands that in a concrete way: giving to charity is the best possible investment in our own financial security. Whatever we give away will come back to us many times over: Rabbi Nahman bar Isaac says, 'If he does give, he will eventually become rich (Berakhot 63a).'

Whether or not we become wealthy by donating to charity, what remains empirically true is that great fortunes are routinely gained and lost. Along with fluctuating economies, the wellbeing of individuals and families also cycles from high to low and back again. In that tempestuous flux, only what we give away remains to our credit forever.

The Hasidic Rabbi Israel Joshua Tronk of Kutno observed, "The miser is not the master of his own money, only its guardian." So long as the money is in our care, we must worry about its security, fret over its ability to generate income, guard against its being frittered away. More than we possess our wealth, there are important ways in which our wealth possesses us.

But the solution is not simply to eschew money. Instead of a false dichotomy of hedonistic abandon versus abstemious poverty, we can recognize that a healthy relationship to wealth begins in the mind, with a consciousness that money is meant to be shared, that it is useful in expressing values and demonstrating priorities. In giving our money away - to causes we passionately advocate, to institutions we dearly love, to strengthen the hand of justice and to enhance the vitality of Torah - we build a world in which our wealth is imperishable. In the compilation Ginzeinu Ha-Atik, a tale is told of the great philanthropist, Mayer Rothschild. He was asked about the extant of his vast fortune, and he responded, literate Jew that he was, by quoting our verse, "Everyone's hallowed things will be his." What he gave to tzedakah was his truest possession. And only what he gave away was forever associated with his name.

That simple ecology of money is true for us as well. We can squander our time and income on amassing things that will either fall apart of pass into the hands of others after us. We can pour our energy and funds into bigger, better, and newer. These ultimately degrade into clutter and outmoded.

Or, we can seize the opportunity when the capacity to make a difference is in our hands. While we have some say in the disposition of our assets, we can reach out to those whose need creates an opportunity to help. We can hold out a hand to assure that our values and heritage remain vital and transformative long after we no longer can allocate on our own. In that act of giving, we make our values real, permanent, and a source of healing. As the Torah so wisely reminds us, whatever we give, that will remain truly our own.

Shabbat Shalom