The Power of Generosity



Rabbi Roger C. Klein

The Temple-Tifereth Israel

One day, when I was nine years old, while I was playing ball in my front yard with friends, a neighbor, who lived across the street from us, came by, waved me over, and asked ifl would like to cut his grass. He named the terms: cutting the lawn and picking up the clippings, once a week, for 25 cents. I said “yes,” I would like to do that.

So, later that week, I took our old push-mower, a rake, and a garbage bag out of the garage, rolled it and canied them across the street, and began to cut my neighbor’s lawn. It was tough work because the house stood at the top of a hill and the lawn descended from that height to the sidewalk below, while that slopping lawn continued part-way around the side of the house, as well. And, as I drive by that house on the comer of Lindholm Road at Lomond Blvd. even today, that hill reminds me of that time. I can’t remember how long it took me to finish that lawn, but my memory of it, undoubtedly enlarged by the passage of time, tells me that it was something like two hours. So, when I completed the job and, after the owner’s inspection, collected my quarter, I returned home, put the lawnmower and rake away, and went into the house.

It happens that my father was sitting in the sunroom reading the paper when I came in. He knew what I had been up to and he was eager to hear about my experience. I told him … back and forth along the increasingly steep hill, around the comer of the house, and then back over the whole thing to pick up the clippings. “And how much did you earn?” my father asked. “Twenty-five cents,” I told him. “Twenty-five cents?” my father responded. He put his arm around me and hugged me. Then he paused and said: “Why don’t you go back and tell Mr. So-and-So that due to the nature of the terrain, you think that he should give you fifty cents for the job!” I remember these very words of my father as if he had just told them to me yesterday. They are emblazoned in my memory. When he suggested that I say these words … “due to the nature of the terrain” … I wanted to say to him, “Dad, I’m only nine years old!”

I don’t remember what came next. Did I relay that message or something like it to my neighbor? Did I ever cut his grass again? Did I ever cut anybody ‘s grass, except our own, ever again? I don’t remember.

Why, then, do I remember that particular episode and that fragment of a conversation I had with my father, and especially those very words? I don’t !mow. Why do we retain in vivid memory certain experiences out of our past while other experiences fade away? My guess about this one is that
it was a moment … fleeting in time but transformative in impact … in which I recognized the depth of my father’s love for me and the support from him that I could always count on. My world was secure. And another thing: I experienced in that moment something powerful about the kind of person my father was.

I remember so many things about my father, who would have been 99 years old the day before yesterday. He was a warm and sweet and charming human being. He was devoted to my mother and to his three sons. He began putting money away for our college educations the moment we were born. When we went off to college, he bought insurance on our tuitions so that, in the event of his death, our educations would be completely paid for. He was always planning and always disciplining himself for the sake of his family, always sacrificing some of his own pleasures to bring those plans for us to fruition. He was compulsive about things and these compulsions created problems for him and for me. Yet, they mostly worked in our favor.

Now, my father had a small loose-leaf notebook where he kept meticulous records of where he had his savings and investment accounts, the ever­ changing value of the corpus of these accounts, the dividends yielded and the month-by-month market fluctuations, his life insurance records, the contents of his safety deposit box, along with a full glossary defining each abbreviation used in the notebook. He called this book “Where It’s At … ” and, at frequent intervals throughout my life, he would take me to lunch and remind me where he kept “Where It’s At …” in case … and this is how he put it … “something should happen to me.” And then he would tell me, as his voice cracked, that the thing he wanted most was that … again I quote him precisely …”mother should not have any worries when I’m gone.” I
still have “Where It’s At …” … here it is … and it remains one of my most precious possessions.

When I was playing baseball as a kid, he would regularly leave work early to watch the games and to walk along the sidelines taking moving pictures … that’s what we called them … moving pictures of my exploits on the playing field. One of his products, a film of a championship game in which I pitched in 1954 on the Moreland School playground, has taken on mythic status among friends who played in that game although that film runs to less than three minutes!

As I grew older and began to reflect on the person my father was, part of what gave that long-ago moment in our sunroom its power became clear to me: it was his simple and quiet readiness to express love and to extend his generous spirit. And my memory of that moment was undoubtedly deepened and preserved by the fact that I continued to see these qualities in him over and over again throughout the years.

My father’s magnanimous spirit took many forms. Two of them stand out. First, was his capacity to express large sympathies. He treated everyone he met with open friendliness, kindness and respect. He leaned toward, and not away from, those he encountered. He had no prejudices, no cramped biases. Sure, when someone crossed him, he could rise up in anger, but his deeply-felt inclinations led him to give everyone, even those who hurt him, the benefit of the doubt.

He also enacted his spirit of generosity through humor. And in this, he was a master, though the matter is complicated by the fact that he had something of a traumatic childhood. When he was five years old, his mother died in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Time and again he told the story ofhow he stood at the bottom of stairs in front of his father’s modest jewelry store at 512 Main Street in Coshocton, Ohio, while his mother was carried out on a stretcher from their apartment above the store. He recalled that his mother said to him, as she was carried past her desolate son, “I’ll be back soon.” She never came back. The sting of that moment trailed him and haunted him for the rest of his life. And, throughout his life, he used his quick wit to fend off the demons, to keep the emptiness and loneliness and longing at bay. At least this is what I believe. But he deployed his sense of humor to another end, as well, a purpose so much a part of his nature that he was only dimly aware of its sanctifying power. He used his humor to relieve others of the pain that life has in store for us. I remember so well a Passover Seder we had in our home late in the 1990’s. By this time my father had already had a devastating stroke and was confined to a wheel chair. By 9:30 in the evening, after the ritual and the meal, he was tired and wanted to go home. My mother, ever-watchful, immediately called my father’s aid.

When she arrived, we accompanied them out to the driveway. As the aid was lifting my father’s limp body from the wheelchair into the car, she lost hold of him and, as his legs were already in the car, he fell backwards and almost hit his head on the pavement. It was a honifying sight for us and it must have been even more honifying for this proud and once-independent man. We felt terrible for him and began, with difficulty and through tears, to lift him up. Without missing a beat he said to us, “You don’t have to get all of me into the car; you can send my backbone over to the house tomonow.” We laughed, relieved. It was a stunning moment. For, with that comment, which rose up spontaneously from somewhere deep inside him, he defused a tenible situation, and saved us from the anguish of seeing him in so uncompromising a position. His generous spirit shone through even in the direst of circumstances.

And I’ve thought a lot about this magnanimous spirit of his in the years since he died. And about the virtue of magnanimity itself. We are all so inclined to think about ourselves, first and foremost, aren’t we? My needs, my concerns, my pains, my rights, my grievances, my opinions, my point of view. Egocentricity comes naturally to us. I love what the poet, ee cummings, once said: “I have never seen a peripherally-situated ego.” Reaching out beyond ourselves, thinking about the other and the other’s needs, feeling what he feels, runs up against the natural resistance born of self-centeredness. And, often from too little evidence, we think we know what the other person is feeling or thinking … feeling or thinking about us … and we often infer, again from too little evidence, that those feelings are negative and those thoughts are critical. Yet, when we meet a person whose thoughts or feelings we are inclined to question, whose motives we are inclined to suspect, whose actions or words tend to rub us the wrong way, we must remember that we have a choice … and it is a choice: we can interpret those words and those actions … we can estimate those thoughts and feelings … either ungenerously and suspect the worst; or we can give the person the benefit of the doubt and try to understand what they said and did through the lens of magnanimity. It all depends on what kind of approach we have nurtured in ourselves; and which habits of reaction we have adopted. It all depends on whether we have decided to lead with suspicion or with generosity.

Our ancient sages reflect on the character of the biblical Aaron, known to the rabbinic tradition as a great peacemaker. Be like Aaron, they counsel, who always judged people l’chafzechut, focusing on their merits, generously, and who always tried to see others in the best possible light. Once, for example, Aaron happened to meet a person who had a reputation for problematic behavior and hurtful language. Nevertheless, he greeted the person with gentleness and respect. And, once Aaron left the scene, the man thought: Aaron treats me so well and sees me as a reputable and upright person. I’d better change my ways and live up to Aaron’s estimation of me. The idea is clear: when we think the best of others and act toward them accordingly, when we give them the benefit of the doubt, even when that gesture is not entirely warranted, we open up the possibility that our magnanimity will encourage them to live up to their higher, and not down to their lower, selves. Generosity of spirit, like other forms of generosity, has consequences well beyond the immediate situation in which it is offered.

Moreover, by treating people as iftheir merits outweigh their flaws, by treating others with generosity of spirit, we uplift ourselves. Thinking ungenerously about others, giving the worst possible interpretation of their actions and their words poisons us, diminishes us, and cramps our ability to connect with others, to feel a liberating tolerance for human weakness, and to recognize our common human condition.

The Hebrew word for “generosity” is “Nedivut.” The same word also means “noble.” Generosity of spirit is noble precisely because it is so hard
to enact in the light of our resentments, because our pre-judgments and our habits of mind are hard to give up, and because there are others to whom such magnanimity is genuinely difficult. Generosity of spirit takes an effort and a resolve; but it is an effort and a resolve worth making because it leads to a way of living that can uplift and enlarge us and those around us.

This is something that I try to weave into my approach to living and my interactions with others. I sometimes find it hard to do, but I !mow that it is worth the effort. And the more I engage in acts of generosity toward others, the easier for me it becomes, and the more joyous and liberating and rewarding my life becomes. How grateful I am to my father, of blessed and animating memory, for the crucial lesson he taught me, not by his words, but by his example, beginning more than half a century ago. Long before I thought about and read about the power of generosity, I felt and !mew its power in and through the behavior of a person I loved and who loved me.

His example taught me, as well, that what we do and how we act has an impact long after the moment has passed. My father died in 1999, almost 13 years ago. But his spirit, which lives within me, will never die.