Honor God with your wealth. (Proverbs 3:9) If you are good-looking, don’t be morally loose, lest people will say, “So-and-so is good-looking, and he exploits it by having inappropriate sex.” Instead, honor God with your wealth. Another interpretation: Honor God with your wealth, so you don’t come to honor God without any wealth. Yet
another interpretation: If you have a sweet voice, use it to lead the congregation in prayer. The verse says, “Honor God with your wealth,” meaning, whatever you are graced with, use it to honor God.
—Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Re’eh, 12
This midrash offers us, philanthropists and tzedakah givers alike, two warnings and a guiding principle. First, we shouldn’t misuse our wealth or employ it exploitatively. We are cautioned to mind the fine line between leveraging a donation and having undue influence. Second, we shouldn’t fail to use our wealth. We shouldn’t hoard our resources or, having not used them to honor God, we might find ourselves without them. Third, we are called to use our wealth positively, to do nothing less than honor God. We are told that whatever the nature of our resources — be they money or good looks or a sweet voice — we should use them in service to God. But the midrash goes even further, reminding us that these are resources with which we have been graced. We are guided to give with humility and a light touch, cognizant that these things which, on the face of it, seem to be ours — our hard-earned money, our cultivated good looks, our trained voice — actually have their very source in God.
Thanks to Rabbi Rosenn, we can finally distinguish between philanthropists and tzedakah givers. Ever since Maimonides lauded anonymity in his eight stages of giving, many in the Jewish world hold the mistaken impression that tzedakah should not be a public act.
However, if you are to “honor God with your wealth,” one might intuit that we are to display our God-given good looks and sweet voices; and so, too, we should publicize our philanthropy. Until modern times, the tzedakah giver strove not to embarrass the poor by remaining anonymous.
Through philanthropy, we distribute our wealth most appropriately when we partner with nonprofits that are transparent and accountable, and that provide donor recognition. For more than 100 years in North America and more recently in Israel, society expects its citizens and corporations to “fix the world.” Those who do not honor this social contract (or very wealthy persons who do not honor the Giving Pledge proposed by billionaires Warren Buffet and Bill Gates) might be excluded from the commonweal and see their wealth disappear. “Honor God with your wealth” in a responsible, just, and public way.
The midrash invites us to reflect on whether we are using our wealth, in its fullest sense, to honor God. Asking during the High Holy Days to be inscribed in the Book of Life heightens our awareness that a full accounting of how we use all the assets we have been given is expected of us. The
Talmud offers a teaching about the nature of money — that it does not remain still; it circulates, and the one who possesses it changes continuously. A coin is often referenced in the Talmud as a “zuz,” whose Hebrew root means “movement.” The financial crisis reminds us that not only does money move, it sometimes vanishes.
While markets and endowment returns gyrate, the nature of the other resources we are given is different. Knowledge, wisdom, and skill can increase throughout life, building our personal sense of wealth and stability and adding to the true wealth of our communities, if we give generously of those resources as part of our tzedakah. Just as we need to rebalance our investment portfolios periodically to ensure our financial wellbeing, the midrash challenges us to consider carefully how all our assets are allocated.
If we are to honor God with our wealth, does that imply that if we have no wealth we do not have to honor God? Alternatively, if we do have wealth, but do not honor God with it, is it possible we will lose our wealth as a form of punishment? Should fundraisers include that phrase in solicitations? Wouldn’t it be perceived as a scare tactic or threat? If, on the other hand, fundraisers see their role as one of teaching, then this midrash can be a motivating factor: We are commanded to honor God with our wealth; giving some of it to the neediest is but one suggestion.
Comforts of prosperity sometimes lead to complacency. However, having wealth and using it to enhance God’s wishes help us to appreciate our own wellbeing. Doing good, makes us feel good about ourselves. We are pleasing God with our good deeds; we understand that we are satisfying God’s utterances and mitzvot.
This midrash offers two important pieces of philanthropic advice. First: “Honor God with your wealth” by giving charitably through a Jewish values lens. This means that all who give tzedakah should remember that the highest form of tzedakah, as Maimonides explained, is not simply to satiate a short-term need, but also to help the recipient achieve self-sufficiency. Second: One should give tzedakah knowledgably. Tzedakah givers should research the beneficiaries of their gifts to ensure that their dollars will have the greatest possible impact. To truly “honor God,” we must give with both our hearts and our heads, keeping Jewish values in mind while we make informed and directed contributions.