Ever wondered what you would do with billions of dollars? How about giving it away? Consider Warren Buffet’s commitment to give away his billions in fortune:
First, my pledge: More than 99% of my wealth will go to philanthropy during my lifetime or at death. Measured by dollars, this commitment is large. In a comparative sense, though, many individuals give more to others every day…. This pledge will leave my lifestyle untouched and that of my children as well. They have already received significant sums for their personal use and will receive more in the future. They live comfortable and productive lives. And I will continue to live in a manner that gives me everything that I could possibly want in life…. Were we to use more than 1% of my claim checks on ourselves, neither our happiness nor our well-being would be enhanced. In contrast, that remaining 99% can have a huge effect on the health and welfare of others. That reality sets an obvious course for me and my family: Keep all we can conceivably need and distribute the rest to society, for its needs.
Bill and Melinda Gates have been asking hundreds of the wealthiest Americans (billionaires or those who would be if not for charitable donations) to be part of The Giving Pledge, a commitment to give a minimum of half of their wealth to philanthropy either during their lifetime or at death. As of early 2014, more than 120 wealthy individuals and couples have accepted the pledge, and now the list has expanded overseas, to include some of the wealthiest people in the world. To facilitate the process, members gather annually to discuss their ongoing activities and learn ways to use their fortunes for good. The hope is that The Giving Pledge will provide crucial funds for education, the arts, scientific research, and other areas of concern, for the betterment of society.
This movement has historical antecedents. One such example was Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), the steel magnate, who was perhaps the first modern philanthropist. Even before he retired in 1900, he had written that any wealth that a person has beyond one’s needs should be viewed as a fund to be expended for the good of the community. Carnegie put his fortune behind his idea, and contributed about $350 million (its current value would be well into the billions) to charitable causes before his death. He was especially fond of libraries that would enable people to read books and acquire knowledge free of charge. Carnegie and his posthumous corporation created more than 2,500 libraries, and many generations of students owe much of the quality of their education to Carnegie and his spirit of philanthropy.
While some of the world’s wealthiest happily engage in philanthropic efforts for the benefit of others it should be acknowledged that it is not always easy to give up one’s wealth. As we see from the Talmudic passage below, family dynamics have often made it challenging for philanthropists to actualize their giving. Consider the Talmudic story of King Munbaz:
A story concerning King Munbaz—now King Munbaz decided to give all the wealth of his Kingdom away. His brothers sent him a message: “Your fathers spent much time acquiring wealth and expending the treasury which they had inherited from their predecessors. What gives you the right to spend it all?” Munbaz replied, “I am stockpiling wealth in heaven while my predecessors only stockpiled wealth on this earth. I am stockpiling wealth where no one can access it while my predecessors stockpiled wealth where anyone can take it away. My predecessors stockpiled treasures of money while I am stockpiling treasures of souls. I am stockpiling wealth for myself and for the next world while my predecessors stockpiled wealth for others and in this world.”
Many things come easy for the rich, and we should expect those who have been so greatly blessed and privileged to give back to the community that enabled their success. With so much suffering, poverty, and sickness in the world that could be alleviated with just a fraction of the massive wealth that such a few enjoy, it is the ethical responsibility of the wealthy to aid the less fortunate. However, there are challenges to philanthropy that should be recognized and considered. Still, each person has a great amount to give back to society, regardless of our financial resources. We can give our time to social betterment organizations, give our old clothes to homeless shelters, donate blood to help the sick, or be a friend to the lonely, among other things we can do. Almost all of us can push ourselves a bit further to give more and we will only gain in the process.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder &President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”