Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Steven Jobs, the true measure of a man

 Even though today is the first day of Elul, the month set aside to begin our self-reflection, I began well over a month ago because I have been preparing for the High Holidays seriously since the end of July. I've been, reading, thinking, and writing ever since.  Consequently, an article in yesterday's New York Times Business Day section caught my eye because this topic is one of the major themes of our High Holidays in our quest for renewal.

The article is entitled "The Mystery of Job's Public Giving" by Andrew Ross Sorkin.  He writes:  "Steve Jobs is a genius.  He is an innovator. A visionary.  He is perhaps the most beloved billionaire in the world.  Surprisingly, there is one thing that Mr. Jobs is not, at least not yet; a prominent philanthropist.  Despite accumulating an estimated $8.3 billion fortune through his holdings in Apple and a 7.4% stake in Disney (through the sale of Pixar), there is no public record of Mr. Jobs giving money to charity.  His is not a member of the Giving Pledge, the organization founded by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to persuade the nation's wealthiest families to give away at least half their fortunes. (He declined to participate, according to people briefed on the matter.) Nor is there a hospital wing or an academic building with his name on it."

Mr. Sorkin continues, "None of this is meant to judge Mr. Jobs." Even though Sorkin doesn't judge Steven Jobs, I know our tradition has a lot to say about this kind of person.  One of the thematic prayers we recite when the ark is opened is the Unetaneh Tokef.  The book of life is opened and our deeds are recorded for all of posterity.  The prayer ends "But repentance, prayer, and Tzedakah can remove the severity of the decree."  Rabbi David Stern comments, "Repentance, prayer, and charity do not prevent misfortune-to say so would simply be to return to the fantasy of human mastery that the earlier litany demolished.  But they do temper the harshness of life's circumstances by asserting our redemptive capacity for response." (Who By Fire, Who by Water edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, page 174)  Tzedakah should be one of the cornerstone of our lives.

Tzedakah shouldn’t be translated as charity. but rather it is derived from the Hebrew root TZ-D-K, meaning justice.  We're not given the choice to give tzedakah or not because it is an obligation, a mitzvah.  In this week's Torah portion we're told "Justice, justice you shall pursue." (Dt. 16:20)  This is such an important mitzvah the Talmud Gittin 7b teaches us that nobody is exempt from this obligation.  "Even a poor person who receives Tzedakah must give from what he receives."  It is an honor, a privilege, and an opportunity to maintain ones kavod or dignity to help another person.  The donor also benefits from Tzedakah.  You know that the old saying that the giver receives much more than the recipient is true.

The article continues to describe how other successful businessmen like Warren Buffet came to philanthropy later in their careers.  "Another billionaire, Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart Stores, did not start the Walton Family Foundation until he was 69, just five years before his death. In his autobiography, Mr. Walton expressed misgivings about formal charity programs. 'We have never been inclined to give any undeserving stranger a free ride...'" 

I am reminded of a wonderful Hasidic story as a response to Walton's attitude. A rich man once came to the Maggid of Koznitz. "What are you in the habit of eating?" the Maggid asked.  "I am modest in my demands," the rich man replied.  "Bread and salt, and a drink of water are all I need. "What are you thinking of!" the rabbi reproved him. "You must eat roast meat and drink mead, like all the rich people." And he did not let the man go until he promised to do as he said.  Later the Hasidim asked him the reason for this odd request.  "Not until he eats meat," said the Maggid, "will he realize that the poor man needs bread.  As long as he himself eats bread, he will think the poor man can live on stones."

I remember asking a pre Bar Mitzvah boy in Spfld, what he would like to be when he grows up.  He told me that he didn’t care as long as he was rich.  I responded, “Great.  That means you can give more Tzaedakah!”  When it comes to philanthropists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, I say better late than never.  I only wish they had this vision earlier in their careers. Just think how much Tikun Olam they could have accomplished.  Just think how many problems could have been solved easier then than now as the problems have grown more and more complex and difficult.  I hope one day Steve Jobs will come to the same conclusions Gates and Buffet came to when it comes to Tzedakah.  I'll keep him in my prayers during the High Holidays just like in the story about the Rabbi of Ropchitz.  His wife said to him, "Your prayer was lengthy today.  Have you succeeded in bringing about that the rich should be more generous in their gifts to the poor?"  The Rabbi replied, "Half of my prayer I have accomplished.  The poor are willing to accept their aid."

We have two spiritual goals during the High Holidays.  One is live a meaningful life and the other is to renew a personal relationship with the Holy One Blessed be He. Tzedakah is our way to accomplish both.  We learn truly to live only when we learn to give and we meet God when we serve His creatures