The Giving Pledge and the universal language of love

However, there are those among us who may well be thinking that, with at least another $18b. still in the bank, perhaps her decision isn’t such a big deal?

 Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos with his then-wife MacKenzie Bezos 04/03/2018 (photo credit: DANNY MOLOSHOK/ REUTERS)
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos with his then-wife MacKenzie Bezos 04/03/2018
As a result of her divorce from Jeff, MacKenzie Bezos has become the world’s fourth richest woman. MacKenzie immediately signed the Giving Pledge and promised to give away at least half her $36.6 billion fortune. In so doing she declared that she has “a disproportionate amount of money to share,” and moreover promised to work diligently at giving it away sensibly “until the safe is empty.”
The Giving Pledge is a truly monumental philanthropic initiative created by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to encourage the world’s wealthiest people to commit to giving away at least half their wealth to charity. However, to be honest, possibly the closest empathy I have ever felt for Jonah the Prophet, about whom we read on Yom Kippur afternoon, has been evoked by this Giving Pledge!
You’ll recall, Jonah tries to shirk his prophetic responsibilities out of concern that the repentance of the Gentiles of Nineveh would reflect badly upon Israel. Every time I read about the Giving Pledge – the sheer enormity of the dollar numbers involved and, even more marked, the speed with which this particular new sign up was declared – I feel a kind of Jewish guilt as to why we, the Jews, didn’t create such a laudable revolution in charitable giving!
Hopefully the largesse of MacKenzie Bezos and others will in turn inspire many more hugely wealthy people to share their disproportionate material blessings with causes that will combine to improve the lot of mankind.
However, there are those among us who may well be thinking that, with at least another $18b. still in the bank, perhaps her decision isn’t such a big deal?
This is incorrect. The vast majority of super-wealthy people have not yet chosen to take the Giving Pledge plunge. It is not the norm by a long shot. When it happens, it is paraded and lauded as headline news. This would clearly indicate that even for the uber-wealthy, signing up to give away half of one’s wealth is actually a far more challenging deployment of choice than we may have thought.
Furthermore, on deeper consideration, I think the revolution in charitable giving is yet to happen. For this to occur, a far deeper and more widespread shift in attitude needs to take root.
It is precisely for this reason that a number of years ago, I brought together a small group of like-minded young people to found the international not-for-profit organization called GIFT – Give It Forward Today. Its strategic agenda, namely to nurture, teach and deploy a generation of young people to become givers, is indeed unfortunately still quite revolutionary. So much so that until recently, the public saw GIFT merely as an important communal volunteer service to help the needy or as a large food bank. But there’s something much bigger and strategic afoot.
Among other blatant policy failures, we forget the fundamental mistake in the approach of a recent British government by announcing and funding a grand national volunteering initiative called Big Society. Like many other well-meaning and lofty proclamations and policies, it was doomed either to fail or to simply call to action those who already have do-gooder dispositions; who would find ways to deliver their good deeds without this artificial call to action. Perhaps now is the time for quintessentially Jewish teachings, customs and traditions about giving to be brought to the fore.
Giving is not a given in today’s world! In a self-obsessed and indulgent world, I would suggest that the concept of giving needs to be discussed, nurtured and encouraged at every stage of the educational system and beyond, starting from an early age.
Giving is a universal language of love, a way of seeing beyond ourselves. No matter how much or how little we have, life presents us with countless opportunities to give of ourselves, our time and our resources. Giving is not only the remit of those who have too much to expend themselves.
Judaism sees giving as a moral imperative. After all, we are created in the image of God, who is the ultimate giver! When we see our resources as blessings lent to us to use wisely, our attitude toward our possessions, our prowess and our purpose changes in a fundamental manner.
There is no greater pleasure than living a life of giving. In fact, this concept is so much part of our DNA that biblical Hebrew doesn’t even have a term for “I have.” The best it can manage is “yesh li” – “there is to me.”
In a day and age when it’s so easy to be focused on the “I” and the “me,” it is incredible to see how alive and switched on young people become when they are given responsibility and charged with a mission to give. No surprise however – for we know that to give is to truly live!

The writer is the founder and chairman of GIFT and the executive director of Jewish Futures.