It’s All Hillel’s Fault

Rabbi Dan Horwitz
December 1, 2013
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“Hillel would also say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” – Pirkei Avot 1:14


It seems that much of the American Jewish world has become fixated on the first of Hillel’s three presented clauses.  Self-preservation seems to be the highest value today.  With an uncertain economy, significant levels of un-and-underemployment, and ever-increasing student debt loads, many feel they are unable to donate even $5 to charitable organizations (even those that they may have benefitted from personally – let alone joining synagogues with their significantly higher price tags).  And yet, somehow, these same folks often have cable television with premium movie channels and unlimited data packages for their cellphones (combined totaling at least $2,500/yr on average), not to mention a willingness to order appetizers and alcoholic beverages, in addition to their main courses, when frequenting restaurants and watering holes.


In a powerful statement, our tradition teaches that even those who are the recipients of tzedakah must give tzedakah to others from what they receive. (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 248:1)


For me, one of the most significant indicators of the embrace of Hillel’s first clause at the expense of the latter two is in what I perceive as our shortcomings as it relates to charitable giving (and specifically education around charitable giving), and the “otherness” of those we often perceive as the beneficiaries of our sacred contributions.


While we know that on average, the American Jewish community gives significant charitable dollars per capita, a huge chunk of said dollars come from mega-donors, who also, overwhelmingly, are “older” and come from a generation that had a greater sense of communal obligation.  What is the Jewish charitable landscape going to look like once that generation passes on?


Are we modeling the value of charitable giving to our children?


Is it a value that we actually possess ourselves?


Are we making sure that our offspring recognize that there may come a time when they might require communal support (or are already receiving it in various forms), and thus giving back to help others is essential – even if it means we skip appetizers and drinks when dining out, and subscribe to fewer premium movie channels?


Philanthropy is not just for the super-rich.


We cannot be only for ourselves.


The time is now to make sure we give, give generously, to teach our children how essential giving is, and to recognize the humanity of those in need.


I certainly have some ideas as to what educational vehicles might be worthwhile in pursuing that end.


What are yours?

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Rabbi Dan Horwitz is a rabbi, educator, consultant and community builder. Committed to lifelong learning, he holds a BA in Politics from Brandeis University, an MA in Jewish Studies from Gratz College, a JD and an MA in Sport Management from the University of Michigan, and an MA in Jewish Education from Hebrew College. He received rabbinic ordination from the non-denominational Mesifta Adas Wolkowisk. Dan is happiest when engaged in meaningful discussion with others on topics of Jewish and general philosophical interest, when playing basketball, and when Justin Verlander is pitching. For more information, check out

1 Comment

  1. mi novice understanding of tzedakah has been shaped by many articles from a Rabbinical perspective, but this one emphasizes the emunah of caring like a metronome (sometimes, children of Tiger Moms don’t have a choice, but sit):

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