Mrs. Henny Machlis, renowned for her unparalleled acts of kindness, once conveyed a profound lesson to her daughter, illustrating the essence of true wealth. She posed a scenario: if you have $100 and you give $10 to someone in need, how much do you have left? The intuitive answer might be $90, but Mrs. Machlis responded that in essence, you retain only $10.
While this might initially seem perplexing, her explanation reveals a deep truth. The remaining $90, Mrs. Machlis pointed out, will eventually be spent on daily necessities, bills, or other transient things. However, the $10 given to charity is an everlasting investment in humanity and in one’s spirituality.
This lesson resonates with a surprising choice of words in the Torah portion of Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19). At the very beginning of this portion, the Jewish people are instructed to bring gifts to Tabernacle with the words v’yikchu li terumah. Intriguingly, the Torah uses the term ‘v’yikchu’, “they shall take,” instead of v’yitnu, “they shall give.” The literal meaning of the verse is ‘they shall take (for themselves) a contribution for Me.’ What does this mean?
This linguistic choice hints to the fact when we give to others we are actually receiving. Giving is not merely a one-way act of parting with our possessions. Instead, it’s an elevating experience, enriching our lives and embedding lasting value in our actions. Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, points out that the Hebrew word for contribution, terumah, is derived from the word ram which means elevated. This underscores the message that our own lives are uplifted and elevated through the act of giving.
Rabbi Mirvis drives home the point with another story about a visitor to the home of the businessman and philanthropist Mayer Amschel Rothschild. Entering the study of Rothschild’s Frankfurt home, the visitor boldly inquired, “What are you worth? Estimates of your wealth vary, so could you please clarify what you possess?”
Undisturbed by the audacity of the question, Rothschild retrieved a ledger labeled ‘Tzedaka’ (charity) and began to calculate some numbers. The visitor, puzzled, remarked, “It seems you misunderstood my question. I didn’t ask about your charitable contributions, but rather about your personal wealth.”
Rothschild replied with clarity, “Your question was not lost on me. As a mortal, my time on earth is finite, and the only assets I can carry into the hereafter are the merits of my charitable deeds. Thus, what I truly ‘possess’ are not the material things I will leave behind, but the charity I have distributed. This is the legacy that will endure.”
These stories, as well as the message of the Torah portion of Terumah, underscore a timeless wisdom: our true wealth is measured not by what we accumulate, but by what we generously share with others. The enduring value of our contributions, whether material or spiritual, lies in their capacity to uplift, transform, and leave a lasting impact on the world.
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