Rabbi Stern is right that it takes faith to get through a recession, but I would suggest a different type of faith is in order: the faith to give.
A scene in “Fiddler on the Roof” captures the dilemma: A neighbor gives a kopek to the town beggar who replies, ‘One kopek? Last week you gave me two.’ ‘I had a bad week,’ the neighbor answers. ‘So why should I suffer?’ the beggar replies.
Too many charities, and the people who depend upon them, stand to suffer in the coming recession, especially as state and local funds dry up.
According to a special report by Holly Hall and Sam Kean in The Chronicle of Philanthropy the most vulnerable charities are those that rely on smaller gifts, of $100-$300. Some big givers may be postponing their major gifts. However, recession most affects the smaller givers who may have less discretionary income or feel most vulnerable to economic vagrancies like job security. Even donations to food pantries are down, just as the need for their services are rising.
Not all the news is bad, though. Giving to religious groups remains fairly steady during a recession, dropping only marginally according to an Indiana University study cited in the article. Perhaps that is because people of faith have faith enough to trust that one good deed will give birth to another, and that no one will be impoverished by sharing what they have with others less fortunate than themselves.
This is the message behind the rabbinic teaching that a person’s entire parnassah, annual earnings, is set on Yom Kippur except for what he or she spends on Shabbat, the holy days, and on tzedakah, charitable giving.
I have seen this at work over and over again in my life and the life of my congregants: the congregants who donated the money they saved for den furniture a few years ago to the synagogue’s emergency fund received lucrative employment opportunities and now enjoy a lovely new den. Others who were moved to sacrifice their vacation fund to sponsor the rescue of an Ethiopian Jewish family to Israel were blessed with an unexpected windfall that more than covered the trip they had hoped to take.
The rationalist in me warns that God is not a vending machine dispensing quid pro quos. But the mystic in me believes what we give is what we get, eventually in some way.
That doesn’t mean we should be completely irresponsible. The Rabbis set rules for giving: 20 percent of earnings for the rich, 5 percent for the poor, and 10 percent for the rest of us. (There is some debate whether this is before or after taxes). However, even those on the public dole must give something, even if only a penny. In other words, in God we are to trust, believing that if we stretch ourselves to help others, things will work out for us, perhaps precisely because we extended ourselves for others.