By Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
Over the course of life, every human body inevitably changes and gradually deprives one of certain pleasures. Physical changes occur along with the spiritual ones: while the person loses interest in certain subjects, he shifts his attention to others. In this context, the story of John D. Rockefeller is very interesting.
Rockefeller, the first billionaire, is often regarded as the richest person in history. During the last years of his life, he suffered from an intestinal disease, and could not digest regular food. Although he could afford the most expensive cuisine, because of the disease, just one dollar a day covered the cost of his meals. Rockefeller was not the most righteous man on earth, but his situation made him wonder not about the spiritual aspects of his situation, but about more earthy things. He thought: "I have in my possession an unlimited amount of money, and despite this fact, my body is limiting me in what I can do." Such thoughts lead to the following question: which deeds and actions of a person are meaningful, besides his pleasures?
Rockefeller resolved this question by allocating a significant part of his assets to the creation of a huge charitable foundation. Note that Rockefeller did not necessarily go through any spiritual transformation, to reach moral purity. He only altered his perception of reality in this world. Rockefeller searched for the things that might give him a sense of satisfaction, even though his physical abilities were limited.
At some point in life, people start to think about the things they really own, what is significant and meaningful in their lives. If we try to evaluate our assets, we will see that the only things that last are what we give to others. A person who gives to others can be sure that he owns everything he gave away. As we think about what we own, we may find that our assets change us ? instead of the other way around. However, what was given to others is still somehow credited to us.
Immortality is a common human aspiration, and a common motivation for philanthropy, even though there is no real way of knowing whether the outcomes of our actions will in fact remain after we are gone. This approach to charitable giving is selfish to some extent and has nothing to do with the concept of reward in the world to come. Rather it is about ensuring the giver's emotional wellbeing in the present. One can establish a phenomenal building, but as times goes by the name engraved outside will be forgotten or ignored.
But if a person took an action that made a difference - his deed will remain alive, even when his personal aspirations are gone. One who gave a slice of bread to a hungry man owns this deed. And such an ownership right is much more sustainable than any other kind.
A person can lose his political influence, lose his money -- but no one can take his actions and deeds away. These deeds truly belong to him.