Thursday, May 03, 2007

I Give, Therefore I Am

Why would anyone give money to charity?

Charity is weird because people are naturally selfish. People daydream about new houses, new cars and new jewelry, not about old people in soup kitchens. Humans are instinctively egocentric.

Yet, oddly enough, people give charity. Sometimes it’s out of guilt. Sometimes it’s to receive recognition and honor. (Although it’s a lot cheaper to hire a psychologist, or put your name on an office building). But most of the time people donate out of idealistic motives.

We give because we love. Humanity is one big family, and it’s instinctive to love your family. A few weeks ago I visited a foster home in Beersheva for teens from troubled backgrounds. Immediately, feelings of compassion and love stirred in my heart, as if these kids were long lost relatives .

Love dilutes our instinctive greediness, and motivates us to share with others what is rightfully, and selfishly, ours.

But love is only part of the charity story. Giving charity also transforms us into true human beings.

Man is created in the image of God. This biblical idea reminds us that to be truly human, one must emulate God. The Talmud sees this as requiring us to imitate God’s compassion.

However, the image of God carries a much larger burden. We are also expected to emulate God the creator and become partners in creation. Tikkun Olam, perfecting the world, is now our responsibility. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik puts it:

“WHEN man, the crowning glory of the cosmos, approaches the world, he finds his task at hand—the task of crea­tion. He must…. repair the defects in the cosmos, and replenish the "privation" in being. Man, the creature, is commanded to become a partner with the Creator in the renewal of the cosmos….”

Man by his very nature, is driven to emulate God’s creation by fixing the world. Giving charity is an existential need.

Or, to put it in other words: I give, therefore I am.

Because it focuses on Tikkun Olam, existential charity does not stop at the recipient. World fixers want to inspire others to join in their mission.

My friend Peter was a refugee who fled Hungary in 1957. Peter had recieved a visa to go to Vancouver. However, when the train from Quebec City stopped in Montreal, he and two friends decided to jump off the train. Frightened they might get caught by police, they hid in a broom closet.

Late at night they ventured back into the station, and a volunteer from Jewish Immigrant Aid Services was waiting on the platform. He had seen the boys jump off the train, but couldn’t find them. So he waited at the train station, to make sure they had a place to live, a sponsor, and some pocket money.

A few years later, Peter tracked down the name of the volunteer, and went to visit his small walk up apartment. There he met the man’s widow; the volunteer had died a short time before.

Peter wanted to give this woman of modest means some sort of a gift; he insisted it was simply to honor her husband. To this, the woman replied: “You want to honor my husband? Then do as he did”.

From that day onwards, Peter has devoted himself to community work. What Peter does today was inspired years ago by that selfless volunteer, one of God’s partners in creation.

And like his anonymous benefactor, Peter can say: “I give, therefore I am”.

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