On a visit to Dallas Texas, my wife and I visited the George W Bush library. The walk through the rooms was like a trip down memory lane with all the highs and lows of that tumultuous presidency. There were many special exhibits; a replica of the oval office, a heart wrenching recreation of 9/11 and its aftermath, and the exhibit about Hurricane Katrina, to name a few.
But the one exhibit that left a lasting impression was the collection of gifts given to President Bush and the First Lady. Many of these gifts were given by heads of states during state visits, but there were also valuable pieces of Jewelry, and gifts by ordinary citizens. For example, the mother of a firefighter who died on 9/11, gave President Bush her son’s badge and the president carried it with him throughout his presidency.
Notwithstanding how much he valued this badge, he was not able to take it home with him. When his presidency ended, the badge, along with all the gifts that the president and first lady received, were placed in the George W Bush library under the administration of NARA, the National Archives and Records Administration.
I asked why the president couldn’t take it home with him, after all it was given to him? I was told that gifts given to the president during his presidency don’t belong to the president. They belong to the American citizens. In fact, there are many gifts, inventoried and stored in the basement of the museum, that were sent to the president by ordinary people throughout his term. The list includes simple bags of pretzels. None of it belongs to George W Bush. They were not given to him. They were given to the president. And when he was no longer president, they were returned to the people through NARA.
As soon as I heard that I realized two things. First, I realized instinctively that this was true. Second, I realized that there must be a lesson in this for all of us.
When we are born, G-d pledges to take care of us. During the course of our lives, He provides us with all kinds of things. However, those things do not belong to us. They are extended to us to help us perform a G-dly task.
G-d wants us to leave this world a holier place than it was when we entered. We accomplish this through good deeds and acts of kindness. But to accomplish this, we must have ample resources. We need a roof over our heads, money in our pockets, and food on our tables. But these things are not given to us for our enjoyment. They are given to us, so we can fulfill our G-d given tasks.
We have a home, but it is not intended merely to give us a place to live. It is intended to give us shelter so that we can go forth and do good things. If we had been homeless, G-d forbid, it would be more difficult to be a source of goodness and kindness to others. Our home is not only a home base from which we reach out to others, our home is itself a platform for good deeds. We are expected to welcome others into our home and offer shelter, food and rest. We are expected to live in our home in accordance with G-d’s wishes. To place a mezuzah on its doors, to construct a kosher kitchen, and to reside in it lovingly and peacefully.
G-d gives us an automobile, but it is not just for our own use. It is to help us to get to where we need to go so we can make this world holier. If we drive it to the store, we must offer another a ride or offer to pick something up for a neighbor who cannot go. If someone needs a car and our car is sitting idle, it is intended for us to loan it out provided we can trust that person to treat it well.
The same is true of money. If G-d provides us with plenty and we cover our own expenses in ways that are proper and kosher, then the extra was not meant for us. It was meant for charity. Although we earned it and pay taxes on it, the extra is not ours to enjoy. It was not given to us. It was given to the people we will give it too.
It is akin to serving a platter of food to the table. You don’t intend the entire platter for the person before whom you placed it. You intend for that person to take what he or she needs and pass on the rest. So too, when we make more money than we need, G-d intends for us to pass on the rest.
Had President and Laura Bush taken the gifts that were given to the president and first lady of the United States during their term, they would have been guilty of theft. The same can be said for us when it comes to the extra money that we really don’t need.
There are many poor people who can put that money to good use. We need to give it to them because it belongs to them.