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There’s an old Jewish story that goes something like this: A rabbi was distressed at the lack of generosity among his congregants. So he prayed that the rich should give more charity to the poor.
“And has your prayer been answered?” asked his wife.
“Half of it was,” replied the rabbi. “The poor are willing to accept.”
As funny as the joke is, we know it wouldn’t be funny if it weren’t at least a little bit true.
There has not been a time in human history when generosity matched the need for it. The Torah reminds us of this in the book of Deuteronomy:
“For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land,” says Moses. Despite our best attempts, human beings will always be in need.
And so, says Moses, “I command you: open your hand to the poor and the needy kinsman in your land” (Deut. 15:11)
Patoach tiftach et yadcha – “Open, open your hand.” The Torah’s response to need is openness. It is generosity: The generosity of responsibility; the generosity of sacrifice; the generosity of Yom Kippur.
I would like to share with you today three stories about these themes–openness, generosity, responsibility, and sacrifice.
Here is the first story. My children, Jonah and Micah, attend the Chicago Jewish Day School, which is located in the Edgewater neighborhood, just north of Lake Shore Drive, and about a 20 minute drive from Evanston. There are a bunch of Evanston families that send their kids to the school, and every year someone has to coordinate the carpool from Evanston to school. This year, in an act of courage and heroism, my wife Natalie took up the challenge. She is the carpool czarina.
Now coordinating carpool involves a lot of variables, and some very complicated, color-coded spreadsheets. You have to know who’s available for drop-off and pick-up, how many seats they have available, who has childcare for their younger children so they have extra seats in the back, not to mention who is staying for which afterschool enrichment programs on any given day. Israelis have a word for this: It’s a balagan, a mess.
As Natalie was working out the carpool situation this year, it became clear that everyone would have to make a minimum of four drives per week. But she also realized that there were several families who, if they decided to drop out of carpool and make their own mini carpool, could make only three drives per week, while boosting the rest of us up to five or six drives. Being the ethical person that she is, Natalie felt obliged to tell these families about this opportunity to save a good hour and gas money every week, even though it could mean additional hours and money for the rest of us.
Yet when Natalie wrote to them them, every single one of the families said the same thing: “This is a communal responsibility. We’ll drive the extra shifts. It’s the right thing to do.”
To me this is a wonderful display of generosity–and not only because our family is a direct beneficiary. Here were parents who could have taken for themselves, but instead showed a generous response. They opened their hands. “It’s the right thing to do.”
A second story.
The week before Rosh Hashanah I received a call from a man I didn’t know.
“Rabbi Feigelson?” he asked when I answered the phone.
“I just bought tickets for the High Holidays at Hillel. But then I looked online and found a synagogue closer to my house.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Would it be alright if I donated my ticket for someone who can’t afford it?”
A little stunned, I replied, “Let me just make sure I understand. You don’t want a refund?”
“Wow, that’s very generous of you. Thank you so much,” I said.
“Well, it’s the High Holidays. I need every mitzvah I can get.”
Suffice it to say, this guy is our new hero in the Hillel office.
Now of course not everyone is in a financial position to show the kind of generosity that this anonymous man displayed. But then again, even in the midst of record unemployment and depreciated stock portfolios, many of us are. My guess is that this man practices habits of generosity on a regular basis. My guess is that this was an instinct in him. My guess is that he has trained himself to look at the world not with the question, “What can I take?” but rather with the question, “What can I give?”
The central line of the Yom Kippur liturgy comes from the story of God’s forgiveness of the Israelites after the sin of the Golden Calf. “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” We say this line over and over again as part of the selichot that form the heart of the Yom Kippur services. Its message is simple and profound: Forgiveness and compassion, patience and faithfulness–these are the things on which our lives rest, on which the world rests. The teshuva we do today, the returning we do today, is a return to the habits we want to practice all the time in our heart of hearts: the habits of openness, the habits of faithfulness, the habits of responsibility, the habits of generosity.
Here is my third and final story of generosity: My wife Natalie has a friend named Mark. Mark is a very smart guy. He has a PhD in philosophy and teaches philosophy at a college on the east coast. You can conjure a picture of him in your mind: professor in his 30s, married, brown hair, glasses, probably wearing a tweed sport coat–very Jewish. Mark has a brilliant career ahead of him as a member of the academy.
So it was all the more surprising when Mark announced to his friends a few years ago that he had joined the U.S. army reserves and was being sent to locations in the middle east.
Let me repeat that: a philosophy professor, who normally spends his time teaching students in the erudite confines of a university campus, volunteered to join the army. The United States army. He gave up the comforts of his life and home and is now risking death in a much more direct way than he ever would have before.
We don’t typically think of philosophy professors joining the army. In fact, we don’t typically think of students or faculty at universities as having much at all to do with the armed forces, besides the contracts the defense department gives out to fund research, and the handful of students in ROTC programs. It seems like a separate world, a world of which we here–on this beautiful, wealthy campus–know nothing.
Why? Why would an academic do such a thing? Why would anyone do such a thing? My wife asked this of Mark in an email, and I want to share with you part of his response.
“In my line of work,” the professor writes, “I meet a lot of people whose talk-to-action ratio is pretty dismal. Despite the complaining, they do nothing to make the world better. Having spent a lot of time among academics, there is a profound lack of commitment toward actually doing anything…
“The power of academic discourse is somehow supposed to solve problems,” he continues. “But it doesn’t, and I want to be part of a solution, not merely the guy who can criticize a president or regime.”
Harsh words. And hopefully they are not true here at Northwestern, where we are proud of a university culture that values engagement in the real world, bridging theory and practice and making the world a better place.
As fate would have it, the United States Army is shipping Mark off to his duties overseas today, none other than Yom Kippur itself. So I want to read you a little more of what Mark had to say, because ultimately his words and his actions focus us on the central theme of today, the central theme of Yom Kippur, which so far we have called generosity.
“When we talk about philosophy as the pursuit of truth,” Mark writes, “it rings hollow when not accompanied by a willingness to do something. Also, when we talk about supporting a war, or the overthrow of other governments, or of a police action, military or humanitarian intervention, or anything else that the government requires that involves sacrificing American blood or treasure it is easy to do if it is not your blood or your treasure being sacrificed. I can’t in good conscience justify advocating for the sacrificing of American resources on behalf of Iraq, American defense, Israel, or any other foreign or domestic power without exhibiting a willingness to sacrifice too.
“It would bother me,” he concludes, “to have a military under-caste whose role in life is to risk life and limb on a daily basis so I don’t have to. It seems to me that like taxes, the common defense and the common military will of the democracy is the responsibility of all people who benefit from it. I would not make some people pay taxes and exempt others so that we can all benefit,” he says. “ The common good should expect a common sacrifice.”
My friends, this may seem an awkward time to be talking about sacrifice. We are in the middle of an economic crisis. Many of us feel like we’re sacrificing already. Many of us have rediscovered the virtues of saving. We have reined in our unhealthy spending habits. These feel like sacrifices. But ask yourself: Is making your lunch at home instead of buying it at work an act of generosity? No. Saving is a virtue, but it is not sacrifice–it is not generosity. Saving is an act of self-defense, an act of limitation. Giving is an act of openness, an act of sacrifice, an act of generosity. “Patoach tiftach,” says the Torah. “Open, open your hand.” To sacrifice involves giving up something–time, money, energy, dreams–for the sake of someone else. It is fundamentally an act of generosity.
Of course, korbanot, sacrifices, are central to Yom Kippur. As we recall today, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, sacrificed a total of seven animals on the altar of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur in ancient times. In the Bible the number seven signifies a special kind of emphasis, and in this case we can say that in prescribing seven korbanot, seven sacrifices, the Torah means to emphasize the centrality of sacrifice to Yom Kippur. While we don’t perform animal sacrifices anymore, we remember, we experience, on this day that emphasis: We are here to contribute, we are here to give something. And we are here to give that something generously, openly, lovingly. That is the essence of our holiness. That is the essence of today.
So today I ask you, what will you give? What will you contribute? What is a
meaningful, generous sacrifice you can make? Obviously I do not mean to imply today that everyone here should join the armed forces. We all have important contributions and sacrifices to make. But I am asking you to take the question seriously.
Money is certainly useful, and financial contributions to people and institutions that need them are important forms of generosity. Particularly this year, when so many charities have been hit so hard, they need your help. Will you be generous with your money?
Time is another way to be generous. It could be on what seems like a small thing, like taking the time to call a friend or family member more regularly and tell them you care about them. It could be on what seems like a big thing–like giving up your time to work on health care reform, or volunteering your summer in a service program. This year, how will you be generous with your time?
There is one other way to be generous, and it actually doesn’t even involve giving anything up. The Talmud distinguishes between those things which can be given and are exhausted, and those things which can be given and still remain. A glass of water can be shared with someone else, but then each of you only has half as much as when you started. But a lit candle can light another candle, and the first person’s candle continues to burn.
This kind of generosity is the generosity of wisdom, the generosity of Torah. How will you be generous with your wisdom, with your Torah, this year? It could be by mentoring a young person in your neighborhood, or here at Northwestern, who needs the guidance and listening ear of an older adult. It could be by writing down your memories for your children and grandchildren, so they will know their history. It could be by participating in a class or discussion group, and helping the group to share its wisdom with one another. This year, how will you be generous with you wisdom?
My friends, the world will never stop being needy. The world needs your money, your time, your wisdom. The world needs you. Your community needs you. Your friends need you. Your family needs you. What will you give? What will you contribute? How will you be generous?
Gemar chatima tovah, may we all be sealed in the book of life today, and may we all rediscover and rededicate ourselves to living a life of openness, generosity and sacrifice today.