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Pirke Avot chapter three, verse eight

This is another one that I don’t think bears tremendous weight, although the spirit is nice, of course. This is R. Travers Herford’s translation:

R. Eleazar of Bartotha says: Give to Him of what is His, for thou and thine are His; for thus in the case of David Scripture says For of Thee cometh all, and of Thine own have we given Thee.

There are stories of this Eleazar and his overwhelming devotion to charity, the theme of which is usually how little he kept for himself. There are anecdotes about the fund-raisers would see Rabbi Eleazar of Bartotha coming in the street and hide, not wanting him to empty his pockets to them and leave his wife and children with nothing. He found them, though.

One great story has the sage holding back but a single zuz to purchase grain for his family. This grain he carried home and set in his storeroom before hurrying back to the house of study. His wife, wanting to bake, went to look in the storeroom but had difficulty opening the door, because…the Divine had multiplied the grain until the room was overflowing. It’s a good thing it didn’t explode, but that isn’t the point of the story. The point of the story is that when the miracle was reported to Rabbi Eleazar of Bartotha, he rushed home from the house of study to gather up the miraculous grain—and donate it to the poor.

The rabbis, by the way, tend to view this kind of charity a bit warily; they aren’t against it, exactly, but neither do they think it would be a good idea if everybody engaged in it. A reasonable generosity is called for, taking care of your family first and then others. Hospitality, yes, excellent. But don’t get crazy.

One of the things I do like very much about this formulation, though, is that it presents charity (it is possible to interpret the verse as not having anything to do with charity, but that is the obvious interpretation) as being a matter for a person and the Divine, not for a person and another person. That is, the verse is not concerned with the rights of the recipients of the charity, nor of their moral worth. The question isn’t whether the poor deserve charity, or have a right to it, or will make good use of it. The question is whether you, with whatever wealth you falsely believe that you own, are willing to turn it over to the Divine, who is the true owner of everything.

Of course, that can certainly lead to trouble, what with it being difficult to make out a cheque directly to the Divine. It is always tricky to think that you (or YHB, or anyone else) knows what the Divine wants to do with all of those possessions. People make donations to televangelists because they believe that their money belongs to the Divine and that the Reverend So-and-So is the appropriate steward thereof. And sometimes, I should point out, the Reverend So-and-So is an appropriate steward thereof, but disappointingly often, not. And then, people believe that their Political Action Committee is the appropriate steward thereof. Or that they, themselves, and perhaps the boat builders are the appropriate stewards thereof. This verse is short on applicability.

But I do think that it’s helpful to get away from the I Me Mine mentality. Just as a political point of reference, much of the debate about taxes is spoiled by an insistence that certain money is mine. In fact, when I make my working agreement with my employer, that agreement says that the Employer will pay X amount to the Government and Y amount to me (and perhaps Z amount to various other things such as pensions, insurers, or uniform shops), and that I will pay W amount to the Government (and perhaps V amount to various other things). That W amount is not mine in any really meaningful sense of the word, any more than the X amount or the Z amount. Most of that W amount doesn’t even make a temporary appearance in bank account numbers, such as would constitute some kind of ‘ownership’. And yet, it is mine emotionally, and of course depending on other arrangements with the Government, other employers and whatnot, it could in theory ultimately be mine in practice, at least ultimately until I spent in on something. What I’m saying is that whether income or payroll taxes are appropriately high or low is overwhelmed by the sense that the Gummint is taking something of mine. Keeping in mind that everything that is mine is actually a gift of the Divine might help ease off the emotional response and allow for some more analytical thought.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that a person would want tax cuts any less fervently—the idea that the Gummint is taking something of the Divine’s to do Bad Things could be pretty emotional too—but it might help a little, right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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