Every year Forbes magazine publishes a list of the highest paid individuals in the world. This year Forbes informed us that the actor Johnny Depp made $92 million while Nicole Kidman was Hollywood’s highest paid actress, commanding an estimated $16 million per movie.
Meanwhile, Barry Diller, CEO of IAC/InterActiveCorp, earned $295 million; Michael Dell, CEO of Dell, brought in $153 million; and Stephen Schwarzman, chairman and cofounder of Blackstone Group, took home $940 million. Endless lists of earners are inexhaustibly keynoted and referenced by every imaginable cross-index.
We have a seemingly insatiable, obsessive desire to know about the earnings and spending patterns of celebrities. We just can’t get enough.
For 11 years, until 1995, Robin Leach made a very nice living hosting “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Each week his audience was presented with a vicarious peek at extravagant mansions, vacations and the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy and powerful. Of course, only a tiny minority of the show’s viewers could ever afford these luxuries. But that wasn’t the primary focus. The point was to sit back and be taken on a whirlwind fantasy tour, during which the viewer could imagine what it might be like to spend money and possess luxuries beyond his or her wildest dreams.
America is a country dedicated to consumerism. Spending on luxury goods in the United States is rising at four times the rate of overall spending. We have become obsessed with luxury goods and brand names.
In our acute hunger to know everything about the spending patterns of the rich and famous, a strange phenomenon of omission has presented itself. Rarely do US Weekly, People or the National Enquirer raise a simple, concomitant issue: which charities do these celebrities and rich people support, and what percentage of their income do they donate?
Our society has become laser-focused solely on making lots of money and aspiring to spend that money on extraordinary extravagances. While we occasionally acknowledge generous charitable gifts, it gets nowhere the same amount of media time as celebrities’ latest clothes and vacations. Let’s face it: very few viewers would tune into a television program entitled “Lifestyles of the Thoughtful and Charitable.”
And it is not just the people we see on television. When was the last time we asked our friends, as they boisterously brag about their most recent jewelry purchase or exotic vacation, where they gave their charitable contributions and how much they gave?
If we did ask those types of questions, how long would they continue to be our friends?
Societal pressure and communal obligation to give charitable donations commensurate with our income is no longer pervasive. Many feel that helping those less fortunate is just a nice, feel-good thing to do.
For Jews, however, charity is not a polite afterthought but a requisite, integral component of our lives, morality and religion. The Hebrew word “tzedakah” literally means “righteousness.” The Talmud treats the obligation of tzedakah very seriously. All of us are required to give it – even a poor person who lives entirely on charity. The average American gives three percent of his or her income to charity, but Jewish tradition actually mandates giving between 10 and 20 percent, depending on one’s circumstances. Many in the Orthodox Jewish and evangelical Christian communities carefully and diligently practice this tradition, called “tithing” in the Bible and Talmud.
Our obligation to tithe is based on the premise that whatever material possessions we possess, they were loaned to us by God. Therefore, as fiduciaries, we are required to use them to help others in need.
Judaism also recognizes the reality that not since the days of the delusional ancient Pharaohs with their palatial tombs has any individual ever taken their prized physical possessions into the next world. There are no pockets in death shrouds.
The Rambam identified eight ascending levels of tzedakah:
● A person gives but resents giving.
● A person gives cheerfully but gives less than tithing.
● A person gives but only when asked by a poor person.
● A person gives without having to be asked but gives directly to the poor. The beneficiary knows who gave the help, and the donor knows who was benefited.
● A person gives a donation in a certain place but walks away so that the donor does not know who received the benefit; however, the poor person knows the giver.