Thursday, May 15, 2008

Nakdimon ben Gurion and Philanthropy

Great acts of Jewish philanthropy have been in the news recently. In 2006, Sheldon Adelson announced the formation of a fund that will likely disburse two hundred million dollars annually. Stephen Schwarzman, the CEO and co-founder of The Blackstone Group, just donated one hundred million dollars to the New York Public Library. As Avi Shafran noted at Cross Currents,

"as in the case of Mr. Schwarzman’s recent gift, the vast majority of private Jewish philanthropy benefits secular institutions like libraries, universities and museums.
According to a 2007 paper, “Mega-Gifts in Jewish Philanthropy,” written by Gary A. Tobin and Aryeh K. Weinberg and published by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, more than 90% of Jewish individual “mega-gift” dollars over the years 2000-2003 were directed to just such entities. Health and medical causes came next. Jewish causes netted approximately 1%."

I was reminded of the story (in Taanis 19b) of a man who lived at the time of the Second Beis Hamikdash, more than two thousand years ago, Nakdimon ben Gurion (from whom David GrĂ¼n took the name Ben Gurion), one of the three wealthiest men in Yerushalayim. I think that this story is instructive on many levels, and it would be wise for our great philanthropists to carefully consider what Chazal tell us about Nakdimon ben Gurion. So, if you've got one hundred million dollars burning a hole in your pocket, and you want to find a way to make a real difference, here's the story.

The entire Jewish nation was in Jerusalem for the festival, but there was no water to drink Nakdimon approached a Roman nobleman who lived there.
"Lend me twelve wells of water for the use of the people," he told him, "and I will replace it with another twelve wells of water and if not, I will pay you twelve bars of silver."
The nobleman agreed, and they set a date by which time the water must be returned. That day came, and still no rain had fallen. That morning the nobleman sent a messenger to Nakdimon ben Gurion.
"Send me my water or my silver," he commanded.
"I still have time. The whole day is still mine," Nakdimon ben Gurion sent back.
At noontime, he again sent a messenger. "Give me my water or my money," he ordered.
"I still have time," Nakdimon ben Gurion sent back.
In the late afternoon, he again sent a messenger. "Give me my water or my money," he ordered.
"I still have time," Nakdimon ben Gurion sent back.
The nobleman had a good laugh on hearing this. "Could it be," he chuckled, "that the whole year no rain falls, and now enough rain to fill my wells will fall?" He went to the local bathhouse joyously rubbing his hands at the thought of twelve bars of silver.
At the same time, Nakdimon ben Gurion entered the Beis HaMikdash anxiously. He wrapped himself in his tallis and stood in prayer.
"Ribono shel Olam, You know that neither for my honor, nor the honor of my father's house did I do this. I did it all for Your honor alone, that the Jewish people may have water for the festival."
Immediately, the skies filled with clouds and a great rain fell, until the twelve wells overflowed with water. The nobleman hurriedly left the bathhouse, bumping into Nakdimon ben Gurion as he left the Beis HaMikdash.
"Give me my change for the additional water you received," Nakdimon ben Gurion said to the nobleman.
"I know that Hashem turned the world over only for you," the nobleman answered, "but it won't help you. You still owe me those twelve bars of silver, because the rain fell after sunset, and it's all mine."
Hearing this, Nakdimon ben Gurion quickly returned to the Beis HaMikdash, rewrapped himself in his tallis and stood in prayer.
"Ribono shel Olam, let them know that we are Your friends in this world," he begged. The clouds then scattered, and the sun shone.
"Were it not for that sun shining through," the nobleman groaned, "that money would have been mine."
"Buni was his real name and not Nakdimon," the rabbis taught. "He was called Nakdimon since the sun pierced ["nikdera"] through the clouds for him.

What do we learn from this story? The Gemara says that the Nakdimon's miracle was of Biblical proportion. The purpose of the Gemara's ranking of the miracle is to make it clear that one who provides water for God's people merits a very special relationship with God. I would suggest that anyone that has a mega-gift capability consider the possibility of building a desalination plant in Israel. The water shortage Israel currently faces is just the most recent expression of a historic, chronic and often critical problem. The government is, indeed, building one such plant, but it will not provide nearly enough water for the growing population, to say nothing of agricultural needs.
Of course, one hundred million dollars wouldn’t build that large of a plant. You would need at least one, one and a half billion, to build a plant that makes a real difference. So get some friends together! It can be a joint effort. And think of the mitzvah of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael on a scale like that of the Rothschilds!

But, as Paul Harvey says, there's more to the story of Nakdimon — there is the Gemara in Kesuvos 66b.

The Gemara there says that within one generation, Nakdimon's entire fortune was lost. His own daughter became a desperately hungry and debased pauper. The Gemara asks, how could this be? After all, the merit of the mitzvah of Tzedakah stands for future generations as well, the best trust fund you can leave for your heirs is created by living a charitable life! The Gemara says two answers. The second answer is the relevant one for our purposes; lefum gamla shichna; a camel is loaded according to its capacity; if it doesn't expend the effort to carry the load it is assigned, it will either collapse or it will be punished. Apparently, the merit of the great charity given by Nakdimon didn’t extend to his children, because he didn’t give as much as he could have, or he didn’t give wisely.

The story of Nakdimon's miracle, seen in the light of his daughter's fate, teaches three things:

1. Providing water for the land and people of Israel is a merit that deserves that all nature be bound to his needs; All of God's Green Earth stands and salutes him.

2. In the spiritual realm, wealth is a zero sum game; the merit that a poor man can buy for a donation of one dollar will cost a wealthy man one hundred million dollars. Click here for an example . Of course, the wealthy benefactor is praised and honored, and the hundreds of his beneficiaries and appreciate what he has done and pray for his happiness, while the poor man who puts aside a few dollars for tzedakah is as insignificant as a drop of water compared to a tidal wave; this is, however, one of "reality's" many treacherous lies.

3. That a man granted a great fortune is not merely given an opportunity; he is given a stewardship, and it is his obligation to make sure that he does the best he can in finding its best and highest use.


  1. A funny note about this Gemarah and diffrent outlooks one of the Sofers says that the reason his daughter ended up like that is because he owed the money Mikkar Hadin,The Satmar Rebbe says a funny thing about this Gemara to he says only a Litvak thinks when it is Dark outside the day is over

  2. satmar rebbe in his sefer on the Gemurah tannis

  3. Now that is something I am going to have to see inside! I didn't know that he had seforim on Shas. Yasher Koach.