Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Win The Lottery Jewish Style

Beset by financial worries, Fred falls into a deep sleep after tossing and turning for half the night. He has a startling dream, in which he sees himself clutching a ticket for the National Lottery, waiting for the winning numbers to be announced. By the time the first four numbers have been called, all of which match those on his ticket, he is transfixed with anticipation, eager to discover whether he has won the jackpot. To his astonishment, as the last two numbers are revealed, Fred realises that he has become a multi-millionaire, wealthy beyond his wildest imagination. Just as he begins to contemplate the life of comfort ahead of him, he wakes up to harsh reality, bitterly disappointed to find that it was all a dream. Then Fred makes a decision – he promises God that should He turn this dream into a reality, then he will pledge one million pounds of his winnings to charitable causes. He is resolute in his promise and is convinced that God will help him to win next time he buys a ticket – after all, presumably God wants the million donated to charity!!

Does this seem if not a little humorous, vaguely familiar? Most of us have probably already spent several lottery jackpots…. in our minds!! We imagine the luxurious lifestyle such fabulous wealth could bring and calculate just how much we would need for our various purchases. We may even imagine ourselves using some of the money for charitable causes. Maybe we think that it is more likely that Divine providence will smile on us if we do.

Actually, our attitude to charitable causes is a good barometer of our spiritual well being. Judaism insists that our money and possessions are not actually ours, but the property of God that is on loan to us. In Hebrew, there is no way to say it is mine or it is yours. Instead, we say it is to me or it is to you. This indicates that our possessions are not truly ours, but merely associated with us; provided for our use, but still really God’s property. A great mediaeval Jewish thinker, Rabbenu Yonah, reminds us that in normal circumstances, when someone deposits an object or some cash with a friend, the recipient must care for it, but not use it. In contrast, God entrusts us with money and possessions, which we may use for our own purposes – indeed, we are supposed to use them for our needs. However, we must realise that as He is the true owner, God will only continue to entrust us with the money if we use it in accordance with His wishes. If we misuse the funds by lavishing more than necessary on ourselves, thereby neglecting the needs of others, we may find that the deposit is withdrawn.

The English word charity does capture the Jewish notion of generosity to the needy. Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, the 19th century German-Jewish leader, observes that the word charity denotes a dependence on the good will and sympathy of the benefactor; whether to contribute funds to a cause is entirely a matter of his own discretion. Not so the Jewish concept of tzedakah, which means not generosity, but righteousness. It is morally right and imperative that we donate a proportion of our income to appropriate causes; it is not a matter of personal choice, but an ethical absolute. This helps us to gain a sense of justice and to create a just society. We should view the opportunity to donate money to good causes not as an unwelcome drain on our resources, but as a chance to develop our moral sensitivities and a contribution to the achievement of goodness in the world by performing this vital mitzvah.

Let us return to Fred, the man who promises that he will make a large donation to tzedakah if God will enable him to win the lottery. Midrash Sh’mu’el, an anthology on Pirkey Avot, notes that even if Fred’s intention is genuine, there can still be no guarantee that God will fulfil his request. However, if he is not sincere, then God will certainly not allow him to win the jackpot. Better to remain poor than to be proven a liar!! I have a sneaking suspicion, that while many people manage on modest incomes, winning the jackpot would not give them access to more funds to distribute to tzedakah, because they would find plenty of new things on which to spend their extra money. Suddenly, the up-till-now undreamt of millions are ‘needed’ and no large sum is available for charitable causes. Put in Fred’s shoes, how many of us really would give that million to charity? I wonder. Maybe it’s better that we don’t win to avoid facing a challenge that we will fail?

King Solomon (Proverbs 10:2) tells us that righteousness saves us from death. This has many interpretations, but is generally understood to be a reference to what we call charity. Our tzedakah can literally save us from death. How so? We may suggest that one of the ways in which God determines our future is by assessing whether we are correctly using our lives and the resources that He has deposited with us. If we are, then we will be allowed to continue enjoying them, but if not, He may decide to withdraw them from us. Increase in our charitable activities can indeed prolong our lives.

When we stand before God this Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we will declare that repentance, prayer and tzedakah remove the evil decree. (Musaf prayer) The truth is that we are already in the Shul, saying the prayers and repenting our misdeeds of the year past. Those two are necessary, but insufficient. We must also commit ourselves to greater generosity, more acts of kindness and perhaps most importantly, a revised attitude to the function of our own resources. Then we can be assured that we, together with all the Jewish people, will have the chance for a happier year ahead.