giving and taking


On May Day, The New York Times pub­lished an arti­cle about how to deter­mine how much mon­ey you should donate, sug­gest­ing that “God Knows”. The arti­cle states that “Amer­i­cans gave away 2.2 per­cent of their per­son­al dis­pos­able income to non­prof­it groups of var­i­ous sorts in 2008”. It reviewed the usu­al amounts sug­gest­ed by var­i­ous “West­ern” reli­gious groups. Aside from the well-known Mor­mon prac­tice of tithing (10%) which is based on Bib­li­cal (i.e. Jew­ish) texts, it men­tions that “the Koran spec­i­fies a dona­tion of one-for­ti­eth (2.5 per­cent) of one’s accu­mu­lat­ed wealth each year”, which is an intrigu­ing con­cept. Anoth­er (Chris­t­ian) sug­ges­tion pre­sent­ed by Gary Ander­son, a pro­fes­sor of the­ol­o­gy at Notre Dame, is based on the cor­re­spon­dence between the Eng­lish poets Robert Bridges and Ger­ard Man­ley Hop­kins in which Bridges advised:

giv­ing to the point of per­son­al incon­ve­nience, so that some­thing that you want­ed to do, you wouldn’t be able to do because you had giv­en goods to the poor…not giv­ing to the point of utter impov­er­ish­ment, but it’s not just giv­ing pock­et change either.

How­ev­er, I think these ideas of “dis­cre­tionary” “phil­an­thropic” giv­ing are mis­un­der­stand­ings of what the orig­i­nal Bib­li­cal text had in mind. That 10% of the yield of your land described in Deuteron­o­my 14: 22–27 is a tax due the Levites and priests who are land­less (i.e. “non-pro­duc­tive” mem­bers of soci­ety) and main­tain “The Sys­tem” (the admin­is­tra­tive and cul­tic cen­ter). This is not free-will giv­ing.

Deb­bie and I under­stand this to be a col­lec­tive respon­si­bil­i­ty rep­re­sent­ed by our gov­ern­ment to take care of the wid­ow and the orphan and the stranger that is with­in our midst. And, so, we vote in such a way that we hope that our tax­es will be used for those pur­pos­es. In addi­tion, we give to a wide vari­ety of phil­an­thropic caus­es. To some we give more, to oth­ers less. We give through­out the year and peri­od­i­cal­ly check to see if we are “giv­ing enough”. We don’t con­scious­ly give “to the point of per­son­al incon­ve­nience”, but it always seems that there are more caus­es that require our help than we have the resources to sup­port.


If, as accord­ing to Psalm 24:1 “L’Adon­ai ha’aretz u’melo’ah (ליהוה הארץ ומלואה, For the earth is the Lord’s and all its full­ness)”, we are con­stant­ly receiv­ing or tak­ing from a “Giv­ing Earth”. Even if we are uncom­fort­able with the the­is­tic expres­sion of the Psalm, we are aware of our­selves as short-term ten­ants or cus­to­di­ans of the earth. It is not sur­pris­ing that we make sure that we do not destroy our home, and might even be expect­ed to give some­thing back. There are so many parts of our earth that give to us unques­tion­ing­ly.

Per­haps one of the strangest expres­sions of this idea of the giv­ing earth is the much dis­cussed, famous, 20th cen­tu­ry chil­dren’s book by Shel Sil­ver­stein (who’s yahrtzeit 24th of Iyyar, 5770 coin­cides with the date of the pub­li­ca­tion of this post. Sat­ur­day 8 May 2010): The Giv­ing Tree. As the Wikipedia arti­cle states:

Ever since the book was pub­lished, it has gen­er­at­ed con­tro­ver­sy and oppos­ing opin­ions for its inter­pret­ed mes­sages, on whether the tree is self­less or mere­ly self-sac­ri­fic­ing, and whether the boy is self­ish or rea­son­able in his demands of the tree.

I read the book to our chil­dren many times, in both Eng­lish and Hebrew (as well as oth­er Sil­ver­stein books avail­able in Hebrew). How Sil­ver­stein him­self came down on the debate about the mean­ing of the tree, I don’t know, but, the dis­cus­sion that it raised for our kids was valu­able.


There­fore, I was a bit sur­prised to see the use of Sil­ver­stein’s image on a lapel but­ton by a group called Hekdesh (Hineynu Kehillat Dorot Shovachat) “is a com­mu­nal vehi­cle for tzedakah. Mem­ber­ship is open to those in the Dorot Fel­low Net­work and their partners/spouses.” I was intrigued by the word’s use as an acronym, but the phrase was puz­zling. So I checked with Jay, my offi­cial Mod­ern Hebrew trans­la­tor.

Clear­ly, the intent is שובחת – with a “khet”, and thus what we have is relat­ed to improv­ing or embell­ish­ing (in pos­i­tive man­ner). That’s the hif’il use (להשביח). What appears in their phrase is pa’al (kal), and I can’t think of com­mon usage of the verb in that sense. It does show up in the pas­sive, with a mean­ing of being praised, but in the phrase קהילת דורות שובחת it’s def­i­nite­ly active. In the phrase (קהילת דורות שובחת) Dorot doesn’t refer to gen­er­a­tions, but instead sim­ply to the name of the orga­ni­za­tion. I get the feel­ing that they liked the idea of HeKDeSh as their name, and then went through a few pos­si­bil­i­ties for what it might stand for.
Thus, the trans­la­tion would be some­thing along the lines of:
The Dorot Com­mu­ni­ty for Improve­ment.

I’m all in favor of tzedakah col­lec­tives. I think they’re a great idea. It’s impor­tant to be able to make deci­sions about how our mon­ey is used. I am, how­ev­er a bit puz­zled about the use of the the image of The Giv­ing Tree. I am puz­zled not so much because of its com­pli­cat­ed mean­ing as stat­ed above, but, because I don’t see any­where on the but­ton any indi­ca­tion that Shel Sil­ver­stein (or his estate) gave per­mis­sion to use the image.

To the best of my knowl­edge, the image of The Giv­ing Tree is not (yet) in the pub­lic domain. The use of the image on the but­ton rep­re­sents “tak­ing” more than “giv­ing”.

Date: ca. 2008
Size: 5.7
Pin Form: safe­ty
Print Method: cel­lu­loid
Text grow your giv­ing

your lapel buttons

Many peo­ple have lapel but­tons. They may be attached to a favorite hat or jack­et you no longer wear, or poked into a cork-board on your wall. If you have any lay­ing around that you do not feel emo­tion­al­ly attached to, please let me know. I pre­serve these for the Jew­ish peo­ple. At some point they will all go to an appro­pri­ate muse­um. You can see all the but­tons shared to date.

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