Last Shabbos I spoke to you about Jewish heroes and how Rabbi Akiva was the hands down hero of Lag B’Omer. This week I’d like to talk to you about another hero: Robert Smith. Do you know who Robert Smith is? There’s probably more than a million Robert Smiths in America. But there is one Robert Smith that Americans won’t soon forget because of what he did last Sunday.
Robert Smith is a tech executive and philanthropist. He’s managed to largely stay under the radar despite being the wealthiest African American in America—worth $4.47 billion. Last Sunday he received an honorary degree from Moorehouse College. But that didn’t change his anonymous status very much. His anonymity was wiped away when he announced during his commencement speech before 400 graduates that he would be paying off all of their student loans. Undoubtedly this was the best graduation gift of all time. He said: On behalf of the 8 generations of my family who have been in this country, we’re going to put a little fuel in your bus. This is my class—2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate your student loans. All this to the tune of $40 million! Let me ask you Robert Smith, would you like to name our sanctuary after your grandfather?
So who is Smith? And how did he make his money? As a junior in high school, Smith landed an internship at Bell Labs by calling the company every week for 5 months until he got a slot. Smith tinkered with computers during his summer and winter breaks, and went on to study chemical engineering at Cornell. He earned an MBA from Columbia University, followed by an investment banking job at Goldman Sachs. After advising billion-dollar mergers for tech companies such as Microsoft and Apple, he left Goldman to found Vista Equity Partners in 2000. This is where he made his fortune.
Here’s the amazing thing…Smith, along with Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, Charles Bronfman, Arthur Blank and 186 others have signed the “The Giving Pledge”—a commitment by billionaires to give half of their wealth to philanthropic causes. Would anyone here care to participate? I have the pledge in my office and you can sign it after Shabbat.
What is the source of this selfless altruism? We find it in today’s Torah portion (Lev. 25:35) where it discusses the mitzvah of tzedakah: V’chi yamuch achicha umata yado imach, v’hechezakta bo, geyr v’toshav vachai imach (If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in his nearness to you, then you shall strengthen with him—whether he be a convert or a born Jew—so that he can live with you).
Our Sages ask, why does it say, v’hechezakta bo (you shall strengthen with him) and not, v’hechezakta oto (you shall strengthen him)? R. Simcha Bunim Sofer (Shaarei Simcha) suggests that that the answer is based on comment of the Midrash (Rabbah, Behar #34): R. Yehoshua taught: More than what the owner of the house does for the poor person, the poor person does for the owner of the house.
Here’s the principle, the person giving the tzedakah is not just supporting the poor man; the poor man is supporting the giver as well.
The Torah word v’natnu (and they shall give) is a palindrome. It reads the same backwards and forwards because, teaches the Torah, one who gives always receives in return. In the end will it will come back to you—even 10 times. Don’t take the Torah’s word for it. Recently I’ve discovered that it’s actually science.
According to author and scientist Dr. David R. Hamilton: Acts of kindness create an emotional warmth, which releases a hormone known as oxytocin. Oxytocin causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide, which dilates the blood vessels. This reduces blood pressure and, therefore, oxytocin is known as a “cardioprotective” hormone. It protects the heart by lowering blood pressure. All this just because of an act of kindness!
Researcher Stephen Post of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine maintains: When we give of ourselves, everything from life satisfaction to self-realization and physical health is significantly improved. Mortality is delayed, depression is reduced, and well-being and good fortune are increased. All because we give of ourselves!
My friends, Robert Smith may have given a substantial gift that brought great joy to the students of Morehouse. But his selfless act will carry and support him as well and enrich his life. When we get that good feeling from helping others, we should make sure to pay attention to it, because the next time we are deciding if and how to help…that feeling will help us be more generous, and ultimately more enriched.
And speaking of heroes, let’s not forget on this Memorial Day weekend the brave soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice and gave their lives so that we may be free and prosper. Amen!