Every year, Jews in the Diaspora are ranked among the highest charity givers in the US, UK and Canada. This apparent zeal for tzedakah is not without its merits. Donations to charity support vibrant and diverse Jewish and non-Jewish causes and in many cases help organizations to provide much needed services. In some cases, it is only thanks to the generosity of wealthy individuals that many iconic institutions have been built and maintained. As a result, most of us are familiar with our local mega-donors whose names adorn synagogue, hospital, school and university buildings.
While it is a well known Jewish axiom that tzedakah is an important mitzvah, one question ought to loom heavily over the heads of the wealthy among us who are so blessed as to be able to afford a six figure donation: At what point does your tzedakah turn into vanity?
Of the myriad problems facing the Jewish community — anti-Semitism, the cost of Jewish day schools and Jewish living, for example — a lack of marble-embossed multi-million dollar community centres and college buildings named after the so and so family is not one of them. Our rich history is filled with lessons and stories which encompass the entire breadth of the human experience. That experience tells us clearly that we must not pursue material wealth for its own sake.
During Sukkot we read the book of Ecclesiastes. Attributed to King Solomon, the book wrestles with the meaning of life, boldly stating “What profit has man in all his toil that he toils under the sun?”. It returns time and again to humankind’s efforts to find meaning in our temporary physical existence. Its message distilled down to one short line: “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
This is why anyone considering a sizable donation should pause to reflect on their motivations. One who donates money in exchange for fame may be charitable, but they are not fulfilling the mitzvah of tzedakah. Even worse, if you find yourself increasingly attracted to the notoriety and prestige you will garner from your donation, that is vanity.
Certainly this is not to say that there are no synagogues in need of repair, no schools in need of expansion or community institutions that must be rebuilt anew. But the time has come for those of us who espouse the need for tzedakah to actually uphold its values. Judaism tells us that there are far more important things than the material. We must consequently focus our efforts on people, not buildings; on ideas, not monuments; and on meaning, not vanity.
This is why Jewish philanthropy must focus on that part which makes it uniquely Jewish — Judaism. Our community would be far better served if our resources were pooled to enable those who want to live a Jewish lifestyle to actually do so. Synagogues with a modern facade will do us no good if children cannot read Hebrew. A large community centre will do no good if there are no Jews living in the area. Hosting fancy gala dinners instead of making sure that the needy among us can afford to actualize a real shabbat experience does nothing to ensure a Jewish identity for the next generation. Tzedakah which does not meet the real needs of the Jewish community is a waste of time and community resources.
In the end the rich are buried alongside the poor, fancy buildings will crumble and be replaced, and the names of those for whom such stone edifices were placed will all be forgotten. The only things that will remain are the ideas and ideals of those who sought to help preserve Jewish knowledge, values and identity for the next generation. Let us therefore endeavour to fulfill the mitzvah for its own sake.