Daf Yomi Kesubos 50
My good friend, Don Ghermezian, is a huge baal-tzedakah (philanthropist). But he doesn’t just write the cheque and end of story. No, he takes an active interest in the people and institutions he supports. One day, we were sitting around the table dealing with a crisis in the community. I felt bad, knowing that Don has a huge corporation to take care of and more pressing matters to deal with, and so I told him not to worry and that we could handle the issue.
He responded with an incredible vort (idea): ‘My father,’ he tells me, ‘always taught me that it’s not enough to just give ten percent of your money to tzedakah. That’s easy. Your obligation is to give ten percent of your everything! That includes ten percent of your time, ten percent of your headspace, and ten percent of what you worry about and lose sleep over at night. Yes, I have business affairs to take care of, but they can wait. At the moment, I’m engaged in dealing with my charitable hours.’
When Jacob awakens from his moving dream about the angels ascending and descending the ladder, he declares, “Everything You shall give to me, a tenth, I shall tenth to You.”
Rabbi Ila taught: In Usha, they enacted that one should not spend more than one fifth of one’s earnings on charitable giving.
It was similarly taught in a Beraisa: One should not spend more than one fifth on charitable giving, lest one become dependent on others for charity.
Rabbi Nachman, and some say, Rabbi Aha bar Jacob taught: The source of this law is the abovementioned verse, where Jacob mentions a tenth twice, which adds up to one fifth.
Most people struggle with allocating their requisite ten percent to tzedakah, let alone twenty percent! And so, the first important lesson here is a reminder to be vigilant in calculating our charitable dollars. That ten percent is not your money – it is money that the Almighty has entrusted with you to administer to the needy. If you don’t spend it as G-d intended, it is not yours to keep – He’ll find other ways to take it from you, like extra auto repairs and the like, G-d forbid. That tenth is sacred; don’t ever think you’re doing G-d a favour by using it as He instructed.
Some people, however, have the heart and the wherewithal to give more. If you can give twenty percent to charity, you are deemed by the Torah to be a generous person. And that is certainly something we should strive for. If your current financial situation doesn’t seem to have room for you to give twenty percent, then don’t be shy to ask G-d to increase you. If He has put a twenty percent clause in the Talmud, then you deserve to be able to reach that limit!
But why shouldn’t you give more than twenty percent? There are poor people living in the streets, standing on the corner begging, what could be wrong with giving a little more? The answer is you’re not G-d. If G-d wanted to make these poor people rich, He could do so in a split second. For whatever reason, He has decided not to. When you start giving a significant amount of your money to charity (beyond the permissible twenty percent), you start thinking that you have the ability to solve the world’s problems and fix the mistakes that G-d made.
G-d knows exactly what He is doing in the world. He allows us to partner with Him in the sustenance of His children. That’s an incredible chessed (kindness) on His part – that we should have the ability to feel like we are contributing to His design and plan. But once we start thinking that we can ‘play G-d,’ He says, ‘Enough! You’ve forgotten where your money came from. And you’ve forgotten that the same way I provided you with good fortune, I can change their fortune for the better at any moment!’
In other words, the twenty percent limit is a reminder to us of where our wealth and prosperity came from. The thought should humble us and instill within us a deep gratitude to the Almighty and a realization that only He provides and sustains His creatures. And that if we stay in His favour, He will continue to bless us. If we get haughty with our increased wealth, He could remove it from us in an instant.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways you could assist the poor. There are no limits on the amount of time you could devote to helping others. Go and volunteer at a soup kitchen! Make your Shabbos table the destination of choice for those less fortunate! Volunteer your time for communal organizations! Pick up the phone and use your connections to raise money for the needy! Remember the sage advice of Eskander Ghermezian: you are obligated in not just ten percent of your money, but ten percent of your everything! That means you can go as high as dedicating even twenty percent of your time and headspace!