The Gemara (Chulin) says that rich people are stingy. Rav Shimon Sofer zt”l explains that if a rich person was not stingy, his tz’dakah would be meaningless. Hashem makes him stingy by nature so that parting with his money will be a challenge, even though financially speaking it is not. This way, he, too, can earn the great mitzvah of tz’dakah with m’siras nefesh just like his less affluent brethren, who are parting with money that they can ill afford to part with.
The following story was related at an awards ceremony for Howard Schultz, chairman and chief global strategist of the famed coffee company, Starbucks Corp. Schultz received the Botwinick Prize in Business Ethics from Columbia Business School in 2000, and during his acceptance speech, he related a fascinating insight into how he became a better person.
“When I was in Israel,” Schultz related, “I went to Meah Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox enclave within Jerusalem. Along with a group of businessmen I was with, I had the opportunity to meet with the head of the (Mir) Yeshiva, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel (zt”l). I had never heard of him before and didn’t know anything about him. We were ushered into his study and waited for close to 15 minutes before the rabbi came in. What we did not know was that Rabbi Finkel was severely afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. He sat down at the head of the table, and immediately we looked away. We didn’t want to embarrass him. Suddenly, the rabbi banged on the table and said, ‘Gentlemen, look at me, and look at me right now!’
“His speech affliction was worse than his shaking. It was really hard to listen and look at him at the same time. He said, ‘I have only a few minutes for you because I know you’re all busy American businessmen!’ You know – just a little dig there.
“Then he asked, ‘Can anyone tell me what the lesson of the Holocaust is?’ He called on one guy – it was like being called on in the fifth grade – and not knowing the answer, the guy said something benign like, ‘We will never forget?’
“The rabbi completely dismissed him. Rabbi Finkel was looking around the table to call on someone else. We were all sort of under the table, looking away, hoping he would not call on any one of us. Personally, I was sweating. He called on another guy, who I thought had such a fantastic answer. ‘We will never, ever again be a victim or bystander.’
“But the rabbi said, ‘You guys just don’t get it. Okay, let me tell you the essence of the human spirit. As you know, during the Holocaust, the people were transported in the worst, most inhumane ways imaginable. The people thought they were going to a work camp but we know they were sent to concentration camps. After hours and days in this horrific cattle car, with no light, no bathroom, and extreme cold, they arrived at the camps. The doors were swung wide open, and they were blinded by the light. Men and women were separated, mothers from daughters, fathers from sons. Eventually, they were sent to the barracks.
“As they went into the sleeping area, only one person was given a blanket for every six people. The person who received the blanket had to decide before going to sleep, ‘Am I going to push the blanket to the five other people who did not get one, or am I going to pull it towards myself to stay warm?’ These are the types of questions they asked themselves.
“Rabbi Finkel paused for a moment. Then he said, ‘Gentlemen, it was during this defining moment that we learned the power of the human spirit, because we pushed the blanket to five others. That is the lesson of the Holocaust!’
“With that, he stood up and said, ‘Take your blanket. Take it back to America – and push it to five other people!’”
There is a follow-up to this story. Apparently, Mr. Schultz later returned to Israel and visited Rav Nosson Tzvi again. This time, he pulled out a blank check, signed it, and told Rav Finkel to fill it out for whatever he wants.
Rav Nosson Tzvi asked him, “I can fill out this check for whatever I want?” Mr. Schultz answered in the affirmative. Rav Nosson Tzvi picked up his pen and wrote out the check for $1,400. Then, he handed the check to Howard Schultz, and told him to take it across the street to the scribe (sofer), use it to buy a pair of t’filin, and promise to put it on every day.
His yeshivah was millions of dollars in debt, and Rav Nosson Tzvi worked very hard to raise money for the yeshivah, but he thought about his fellow Jew first.