By 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.