Torah for Today! This week: MacKenzie Bezos

Torah for Today! This week: MacKenzie Bezos

Rabbi Naftali Schiff takes a controversial topical and looks into Jewish scripture for a response

As a result of her divorce from Jeff, MacKenzie Bezos, has become the world’s fourth richest woman.

MacKenzie immediately signed the Giving Pledge and promised to give away at least half her $36.6bn fortune.

In so doing she declared that she has “a disproportionate amount of money to share” and moreover promised to work diligently at giving it away sensibly “until the safe is empty”.

The Giving Pledge is a truly monumental philanthropic initiative created by  Warren Buffett and Bill Gates in order to encourage the world’s wealthiest people to commit to giving away at least half their wealth to charity.

However, if I’m honest, possibly the closest empathy I have ever felt for Jonah the Prophet about whom we read on Yom Kippur afternoon has been evoked by this Giving Pledge!

You’ll recall, Jonah tries to shirk his prophetic responsibilities out of concern that the repentance of the Gentiles of Ninveh will reflect badly upon the Jews.

Every time I read about the Giving Pledge, the sheer enormity of the dollar numbers involved and even more marked this week, the speed with which this particular new sign up was declared, I feel a kind of Jewish guilt as to why we, the Jews didn’t create such a laudable revolution in charitable giving!

Hopefully the largesse of MacKenzie Bezos and others will in turn inspire many more hugely wealthy people to share their disproportionate material blessings with causes that will combine to improve the lot of mankind.

However, there are those amongst us who may well be thinking that with at least another $18Bn still in the bank, perhaps her decision isn’t such a big deal?

This is incorrect.  The vast majority of super wealthy people have not yet chosen to take the Giving Pledge plunge. It is not the norm by a long shot.

When it happens it is paraded and lauded as headline news. This would clearly indicate that even for the uber wealthy,  signing up to give away half ones wealth is actually a far more challenging deployment of choice than we may have thought.

Furthermore, on deeper consideration I think that the revolution in charitable giving is yet to happen. For this to occur, a far deeper and more widespread shift in attitude needs to take root.

It is precisely for this reason that a number of years ago I brought together a small group of like minded young people to found the international not for profit organisation called GIFT.

It’s strategic agenda, namely to  nurture, teach and deploy a generation of young people to become Givers is indeed unfortunately still quite revolutionary.

So much so that until recently, the public saw GIFT merely as an important  communal volunteer service to help the needy or a large food bank. There’s something much bigger and strategic afoot.

Among other blatant policy failures we forget the fundamental mistake in approach of a recent British government in the announcement and funding of a grand national volunteering initiative called Big Society.

If you recall, like many other well meaning and lofty proclamations and policies it was doomed either to fail or simply call to action those of already “do gooder” disposition who would find ways to deliver their good deeds without the artificial call to action.

Perhaps now is the time for quintessentially Jewish teachings, customs and traditions about Giving to be brought to the fore.

Giving is not a given in today’s world! In a self obsessed and indulgent world I would suggest that the concept of Giving needs to be discussed, nurtured and encouraged at every stage of the educational system and beyond, starting from an early age.

Giving is a universal language of love, a way of seeing beyond ourselves. No matter how much or how little we have, life presents us with countless opportunities to give of ourselves, our time and our resources. Giving is not the remit only of those with too much to expend themselves.

Judaism sees giving as a moral imperative, after all we are created in the image of God who is the ultimate Giver! When we see our resources as blessings lent to us to use wisely, our attitude towards our possessions, our prowess and our purpose changes in a fundamental manner.

There is no greater pleasure than living a life of Giving.  In fact this concept is so much part of our DNA that biblical Hebrew doesn’t even have a term for ‘I have’, the best it can manage is ‘yesh li’ – there is to me.

In a day and age when it’s so easy to be focussed on the “I” and the ‘me’, it is incredible to see how alive and switched on young people become when they are given responsibility and charged with a mission to Give. No surprise however for we know that to Give is to truly live!

  • Rabbi Naftali Schiff is the founder and chairman of GIFT
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