Sunday, December 28, 2008

Jewish Charity In A New Era

After Yosef explained Pharaoh's dream(s), he added a piece of advice on how to proceed (Gen. 41:33):

ועתה ירא פרעה איש נבון וחכם וישיתהו על ארץ מצרים.
Now therefore let Pharaoh select a man who is discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.
Yosef insists that the man who is chosen be a navon and chakham. But why? Yosef has already laid out the plan for what to do so why does this man have to be so wise and discerning?

Click here to read morePreviously, when explaining Pharaoh's dream(s), Yosef begins by saying that "God has told (higid) Pharaoh what He is about to do" (Gen. 41:25). That is before offering his explanation. Afterwards, Yosef says "God has shown (herah) Pharaoh what He is about to do" (Gen. 41:28). Why both? Why did God both tell Pharaoh and show him?

It seems to me that when dealing with a future event that is similar to past events, you can tell someone about it and he will fully understand. However, when the future event is so unique that no one in living history has experienced anything like it, then telling is not enough and you need to illustrate it by showing it to him. Years of bounty had happened in the past and so had years of famine. So, on one level, God could tell Pharaoh what was going to happen. But the extent of the good and the bad, both in terms of severity and length of time, were so unique that telling was not enough and God had to show it to Pharaoh. If he had only told him, Pharaoh would not have understood how severe the issue would be. He would think it was like prior years he had experienced and not the unique, overwhelming event it would be.

This, I suggest, is why Yosef said that Pharaoh has to choose someone who is a navon and a chakham. Chakham means wise, someone who is familiar with the existing governmental strategies with dealing with bountiful years and famines. Navon, on the other hand, means someone who is a creative genius, a person who can reach new levels of wisdom based on existing knowledge (meivin davar mitokh davar). If the years of bounty and famine were similar to past experiences, then all they would need is a chakham, someone who knew how to properly tax or raise funds in the good years and give out funds in the bad years. However, because this experience would be historically unique, they needed someone who was familiar with the old strategies but would also be sufficiently creative to move beyond those methods and arrive at approaches that would be appropriate for the unique circumstances. They needed someone who could create new methods of fundraising and fund-preserving in the good years and fund-distributing in the bad years, methods that would match the uniquely severe circumstances.

As we find ourselves at the end of what is perhaps a unique period of wealth in the Jewish community and the beginning of what looks like a unique recessionary period, it seems that Jewish charities need to think creatively about how to raise money and how to distribute it. Old methods may not work anymore. The mega-donors may not be so mega anymore and charities have to beware of those givers like they never considered in the past. And there will likely be more recipients in extremely complex financial situations in the near future. How do charities reach them and evaluate who is truly needy? It is time to be creative. And, perhaps, it is time to begin thinking about distributing the endowments -- maybe partially -- that Jewish charities have amassed in the recent period of prosperity and/or consolidating redundant organizations. I don't claim to know what is the best advice but it seems to me that someone should be thinking creatively about it.

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