“Believe it or not,” my friend said, “2020 was our organization’s greatest year for giving in our entire history.” As the Executive Director of Repair the World NYC, I spend a lot of time talking about fundraising. This was the fourth time in a week that I had heard some variation of this sentence. Across the country, donors have stepped up again and again since the start of the pandemic. In this time of immeasurable loss, this time in which the needs have been so great from every single angle, people have felt more compelled to give than ever before.
When I began the Hadar Jewish Wisdom Fellowship’s Executive Cohort on Power and Money this summer, these realities were top of mind for me. What exactly is behind this momentum, this commitment, this communal response that we are seeing right now? How are people choosing where they give, why, and how much? And, perhaps the biggest question, when are they choosing to give, and when will they choose to stop?
In Deuteronomy 15:4, we read that if there is a “needy person” among us we are to “open [our] hand and lend [that which is] sufficient for whatever they need.” On first reading, this seems right. We should respond when people need help, and we should give differently according to the needs of the person in front of us. Equity and equality are not the same. To end food insecurity – which is defined as lacking access to enough healthy and culturally appropriate food – it is not enough to simply give someone food; we must ensure that it is food that will sustain them and that they are able to eat. Not easy, but a simple enough concept.
During our cohort time, though, we were presented with texts that complicate that concept, and wrestled with the much larger questions: when has one given enough, and who gets to decide that? In Bavli Ketubot 67b, the rabbis argue about whether it is sufficient to simply support someone enough that they can survive, whether they must be supported enough that they live as they were used to, or whether they must support someone enough to make them wealthy. We discussed this for some time, and many are of the belief that it is never one’s responsibility to give so much that a person in need has “even a horse upon which to ride and a servant to run in front of them.” We went on to read about the ills that befall someone who asks for what can be considered excessive: wine, fatty meat, etc., which might lead one to believe that this assessment is correct.
However, the text that resonated most for me was this:
Rabbi Ḥanina knew a certain pauper and was accustomed to send to him four dinars on every Shabbat eve. One day he sent it in the hand of his wife. She came back home and said to him: The man does not need charity…. Rabbi Ḥanina said: This is what Rabbi Elazar said: Come and let us appreciate the swindlers because were it not for them, we would be sinning every day in failing to properly support the truly poor (Bavli Ketubot 67b)
A few days ago my five year old daughter and I walked past someone asking for money on the street. I gave my daughter money to share with them. I heard another parent nearby tell their child that they would not give them money because “they’ll just use it on booze.” In our family we give whenever we have the chance, no matter what we think the person in front of us might do with the money. My husband and I believe that it’s not up to us to decide what is most important in someone’s time of greatest need, so we are raising our children to give people the dignity of that choice. It is true that this means sometimes a person chooses alcohol over food, cigarettes over water, drugs over a bed. For many, those are examples of excess one may not want to support with their money. For us, this goes back to the Deuteronomy text I began with. Who gets to decide what their needs are, and what is sufficient to fulfill those needs? There is power in choices about how we give our money, and these texts offer some Jewish wisdom on how you might choose to use that power.
While we are unlikely to be giving such that we help people have horses and servants, in the United States today we make choices about how to give all the time. As I am writing this, my family is deciding how to give to people impacted by extreme loss in Haiti and Afghanistan this summer of 2021. There has been a lot written about how to choose where to give in times of crisis over the years: should we give to large organizations who we know pay their executive staff a lot of money, but are well connected on the ground? Should we give to small organizations, even without clarity that the money will even get into the places experiencing the deepest need? If we only have so many dollars, is it best to choose one issue or split the money between them?
As we move into the fall of 2021 and continue living amidst crisis, I am eager to see how people’s giving may change or grow. Perhaps you, reader, have been one of those people who gave more than usual this last year. How did you choose to give? When will you know that it’s been enough? How might you use these texts from Deuteronomy and the Bavli Ketubot to guide you?
Rachel Figurasmith (she/her) is the Executive Director of Repair the World NYC.