“Don’t Let That Man Be You”

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rabbi-myer-schwabBy Rabbi Paysach Krohn

Rabbi Myer Schwab is the founder and dean of the Bais Yaakov High School of Denver, Colorado. He’s also responsible for the financial stability of the school, and in this role he often meets with philanthropists, to enlist their support.

In the early 1970’s there was a millionaire in Denver, an elderly gentleman named Max Rabinowitz (not his real name) who had remained Jewishly observant even though most of his friends and family were not. He gave charity, but his parameters for giving were not in proportion to his wealth. He considered $500 a large donation, when in reality he could easily have given 10 times that amount. His children were independently wealthy, he owned factories and real estate, but he could not part with large sums of money except for business investments. Indeed the most Max ever donated to the Jewish schools in Denver was $500.

One morning as Rabbi Schwab was teaching a class, he was interrupted by his secretary. “I am sorry to disturb you,” she said with urgency, “but you have an extremely important phone call.”

Reluctant to stop the lesson, Rabbi Schwab asked the Secretary if the call could possibly wait till later. “No,” she said, “they are calling from the hospital.”

Rabbi Schwab rushed to his office and picked up the phone. It was Max Rabinowitz. “Rabbi,” he said, “I must see you right away.”

Six months earlier, Max had asked Rabbi Schwab to get him a prayer book that contained the Viduy confessional prayer recited on a death bed. Now, on the phone, Max pleaded with Rabbi Schwab to come immediately. “By this afternoon, it will be too late,” Max said softly.

When Rabbi Schwab came to Max’s room, family was gathered at his bedside. After Rabbi Schwab greeted all those present, Max asked everyone to leave the room. Slowly and carefully, Rabbi Schwab recited with Max the poignant words of Viduy. When they finished, silence enveloped in the room. Then Max said softly, “I remember when I was a little boy and there was a rabbi who came to our town. He spoke of the importance of giving charity, and mentioned over and over the expression, ‘Charity rescues from death.’ Before my end, I would like to fulfill that mitzvah and be clear with God. I have prepared two checks: one for the Jewish girls’ school and one for the boys’ school in Denver. Please take them out of the drawer and deliver them.”

Rabbi Schwab thought hopefully that perhaps his budgetary problems for the year might be over. He opened the top drawer of the cabinet and took out the two checks. He could not believe his eyes. Each check was for $500.

Rabbi Schwab stared at the checks and was incredulous. “Max,” he exclaimed, “you have the opportunity to acquire a share in the World to Come as you never did before. Our girls’ school is now housed in trailers. We need a building. Max, give us $50,000 and we’ll put your name on the building as an everlasting testimony to your charity. You’ll be helping hundreds of girls who are the future mothers of our people. This is your last chance.”

Max thought for a long moment and then said, “Believe me, my heart wants to give, and my head understands that it’s the right thing to do — but my hand refuses to let itself be opened.”

Max died that night, forever bereft of the opportunity of magnanimous eternal reward.

Days later Rabbi Schwab defined this episode. He said, “In discussing a person’s a reluctance to give charity, the Torah warns, ‘You shall not harden your heart or close your hand’ (Deut. 15:7). The Torah says that there two parts to the mitzvah of charity, the heart and hand. A person can understand that his financial help is needed and that the situation is dire, but if he is not trained from his earliest years to open his hand to benefit others, he will find it all but impossible to part with his money.”
Rabbi Schwab’s son-in-law, Rabbi Jonathan Aryeh Seidemann, told this story to a group of his congregants in Baltimore, Maryland. When he finished the story, he said: “A person has to have a special merit to give charity. Max could have earned eternal reward for his philanthropy, but he passed up the chance. We, while we are in this world, should not lose the opportunity when it presents itself.”

After the class, one of the attendees, Mrs. Gretta Golden, said to Rabbi Seidemann, “Rabbi, you told this story in the past. You mentioned it in a class three years ago!”

“And you remember it from then?” asked Rabbi Seidemann, surprised and complemented that someone would remember something he said years ago.

“Oh yes,” she said, “I remember that story so well. It made such an impression on me. And Rabbi,” she added, “I should really tell you a story about that story.”

Mrs. Golden was employed by the world-renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where she was a marketing representative of international services. She headed the Israeli unit. Since Johns Hopkins is one of the finest hospitals in the world, it attracts patients from around the globe.

Just two weeks after Mrs. Golden first heard the story from Rabbi Seidemann, an Israeli family came to Johns Hopkins with their 8-year-old son who needed major surgery. They brought along all the boy’s medical files and explained to Mrs. Golden that they could not afford to pay for the operation the child so desperately needed. As she leafed through the boys’ files, his father said that a few months earlier a relative of theirs had suggested that they write a letter to a certain Jewish philanthropist who had been written up in The New York Times.

“You have nothing to lose,” said the relative, and indeed they found someone to write a letter in English, explaining their child’s desperate situation. A few weeks later the family received a reply from the philanthropist — wishing their son a complete recovery but adding that he could not help financially. This letter was in the file along with the medical records.

Mrs. Goldman read and reread the letter and thought of the story she had heard from the rabbi. That night she composed a letter to this philanthropist, explained the nature of her work, and detailed the situation of the little Israeli boy. She finished the letter with the story about Max Rabinowitz and his inability to give charity even at the end of his life.

Mrs. Golden’s final sentence in the letter was, “Don’t let that man be you.”

Two weeks later, Johns Hopkins received a check of over $40,000 from that philanthropist… to cover the entire cost of the operation.

Excerpted  from “Reflections of the Maggid,” published by ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Ltd., Brooklyn, NY.

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  1. I sort of disagree with the content of this particular discussion. True Max could have given a larger amount to charity. That is a fact. But consider this particular adage. It is not the total amount of money that you contribute in your days that makes the difference to your own heart, rather it is the NUMBER of contributions that you give that makes the difference. I particularly feel that it is better to give 100 contributions of 50 dollars than one contribution of 5000 dollars. The more you give, the more your heart is changed. Donating one big check of 50,000 dollars might make you feel good about what you did and clearly it will obviously help in a big way, but did you really do the chesed that you were meant to do in your lifetime. So give and give often. Dont get upset if you only give a small amount even 5 to 10 dollars. But give liberally and give when you have a problem you can not solve. That way you can be assured your troubles will be called to attention on a place most high and you will certainly be inscribed in the book of life and have a good place in the world to come.
    So this Max is not a bad guy in my eyes and he really is just suffering from the Expectations of everyone else. He did give to charity and I will tell you that 500 dollar contributions are a really big deal in my eyes even from a multi millionaire/billionaire.

  2. Was he considered a rasha because he didn’t give $50,000? Maybe psychologically he couldn’t give such an amount-back then people were not such spendthrifts like today. If all he could give was $1,000 then I believe Hashem understands and accepts and gave Max his eternal reward. I do not like this story-makes a person cynical.

  3. #1 & 2,

    No one said he was bad for not giving more. Simply, he lost out a tremendous opportunity. What connection remained between him and his money after he died and was buried? None at all. His money is worthless in his grave.

    Had he utilized it for the building, then his soul would retain a continuous connection to his money, and he would have a part in every student attending that school.

  4. If you are the one who thinks that the affluent and industrious must give to your charity at such a large proportion, perhaps you are the one who is the “rasha” in that case. 500 dollar contributions are to be commended highly. But that said, if he does not give his money away, it goes somewhere else.

  5. The writer was soliciting money for his own school!!!

    Clearly he has a conflict

    To bad max is dead and we cant hear “if” there is another side to this story

  6. beautiful story!
    and the inspiration of course comes from the caring mrs. golden showed!!!

    and about that i say “you be that woman”

    sure not everyone will have the difficult problem of the denver man, but EVERYONE has a chance to help someobody somewhere w/o spending, and by just thinking and doing. that all starts from just caring.

    no need to physco analyze that aspect,

  7. #1 very well put. This article somehow tastes bad. There are so many good reasons that this Max may not have given more. Maybe there’s a descendent who will inherit and learn Torah. Who knows? I don’t like the perspective of the one trying to collect funds with a “gimme attitude” … the man gave. May it be an aliyah for his neshama. We can’t judge. Max gave and I think it might even have been insensitive to pressure him for more.

    And in today’s world, a person may be living somewhat above his means. There should be no pressure to give more than one’s 10-20% … we don’t need someone to become financially unstable over a pressure to donate huge sums. Keep the boat afloat and may many of us merit to write $500 checks regularly.

  8. It’s true that it”s better to give more small donations then one large one. Those however were not the options in this case. The man was hours away from death he couldn’t have given many smaller donations, it was either one big one now or one small one now.
    Also the story seemed to indicate that the man’s wealth was such, that he easily could have given $5000 EACH TIME he gave $500.

  9. It appears from this story that the gentleman was NOT giving hundreds of 500 contributions. The guy said that he couldn’t give! He didn’t say that he was giving loads of smaller amounts to more recipients. SO bringing in the concept of more quantitative maasim, rather then fewer quantitatively, but more qualitatively, is irrelevant to the point.

    In addition, that concept of giving more times rather than higher amonts doesn’t work with the really big givers, or at least those that should be. If you are giving 10,000 a year (maaser on 100K) then there is some value to giving, say 200 contributions of 50.00, rather than just 2 contributions of 5000. But if you should be giving a million, and you tell gabboei tzedaka that you are only giving 50 because you are giving a lot of smaller rather than the bigger, I highly doubt that you’re giving 20,000 times that 50.

  10. I do not think he is a rasha for that . However everyone has a din vechesbon. Some people have to grapple with anger others jealousy & still other with kamtzanus- miserliness. That is what tikun hamidos is not remaining stagnant. There is a famous story from the Beis HaLevi that he told the gevirim not to stay in shul on leil Yom Kippur & say tehillim because that is not their job . Rather they should get a good nights rest & realize that their job is to give tzedakah the aniyim`s job is to say tehilim. The biggest zechus that we can give Max is to realize that.

  11. The problem here is, that people think Tzedakah is completely a matter of personal discretion. It is my hard-earned money. “Koichi V’Oizem Yadi Assah Li Es Hachayil Hazeh.” I do with it as I please. Every little bit that I give is more than I have to. It is not.It is dictated by Halacha, and there are very specific guidelines and clear obligations, as in every aspect of a Jew’s life.It is not open to everyone’s homemade opinions.

    Clearly,this man did not merit to meet his Halachic obligations for Tzedakah. He also missed out on the opportunity to use his money to help others, over and above his Halachic obligations, and exchange his worldly, transient possessions for Eternal Reward.

    The story should hit home to inspire all of us to open our hearts and our hands while we can still bring merit to our Neshamos and to our future generations, as it inspired Mrs. Golden’s philanthropist.

  12. #12
    The thing is, it’s not “Koichi V’Oizem Yadi.” It is a fundemental part of hashkafa to realize that it comes not from you, but from Hashem. I suggest you take a look at Shaar Bitachon in the sefer “Chovos Halevavos.”

  13. Poor Max gave what he could. We should be grateful, and perhaps his children or his children’s children or somebody will give when they know that Max, their father, grandfather, uncle or whatever was a supporter of yeshivos.

    The end is nice and proves my point about the issue of radius of return.

    The book: The Kabbalah o fmoney makes this point as well.


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