Monday, February 20, 2012

Are you rich?

A friend and member of our community shared a personal anecdote with us at Shul the other day. It's a simple story with a great lesson. 

As is the case in most of Johannesburg, we have a number of beggars positioned on the intersections around our neighbourhood. One fellow is an eccentric character who has been around for as long as we've lived here. He regularly changes his outfits, likes to sport sunglasses, earphones (not that they're plugged into anything) and quirky cardboard signs, and he makes a point of getting the kids in the passing cars to smile. 

The other night, my friend stopped at a nearby petrol station and headed in to the Quick Shop to buy a drink. As he stepped up to pay, our eccentric beggar-friend approached him for a donation. Apologizing, my friend mentioned that he couldn't help the fellow and didn't even think he had enough cash to pay for his own drink. Sure enough, he was short. 

"How much do you need?" asked the homeless man. 

"Two rand," my friend admitted.

Without hesitating, the older man drew out his bag of coins- a day's worth of panhandling- and happily handed over two Rand!

By Divine design, we read the portion of the half-Shekel this past Shabbos. It's the moment where G-d baffles Moses by instructing him to have each member of the nation contribute half a shekel towards the maintenance of the Sanctuary. With those simple donations, the Jews were supposed to atone for the horrible sin of the Golden Calf. Moses grapples with the notion that a token contribution can make amends for such a momentous mistake. 

Well, here's one possible angle on the story: The Golden Calf was an investment that everyone believed was worth sinking cash into, because they anticipated it would offer solid returns (a replacement oracle for Moses, who they thought would not return). 

Still today, people happily throw millions at business or even philanthropic opportunities if they can forecast decent payback value. But, when stocks crash and fortunes halve, most people downscale and hang on to what they have as they become charity-averse. Someone who had been a billionaire and has lost a few hundred million is quite likely to feel poor and to consolidate and tighten the purse-strings.

Yet, here is a fellow who lives hand to mouth and was able to part with a few bucks to help someone clearly better off than he is.

As long as you can still give, you are wealthy. When you cannot share your money, regardless of how much of it you may still have, you have become poor. 

Perhaps that was G-d's message in the half-shekel- a reminder that big bucks to float a golden project don't indicate wealth, but giving away- even just a small contribution- does. 

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