The other day I met a man who never contributes to any charitable causes. How is it possible for someone to be so stingy?


The following Mishnah may shed some light on your question:

There are four types of contributors to charity: One who wishes to give but that others should not—he begrudges others; that others should give and he should not—he begrudges himself; that he should give and others should too is a chassid; that he should not give nor should others is a wicked person.1

The Mishnah seems to cover everyone: There are those who want to give tzedakah (charity) but don’t want to share the mitzvah with anyone else; they are “begrudging of others.” Then there are the ones who aren’t willing to open their wallet, but they at least feel bad about that and want to see other people donate. To be sure, they’re misers—but at least they care. On the other hand, the guy who doesn’t want to give—and doesn’t want anyone else to, either—is a really wicked person. If you don’t want to give, that’s one thing, but why is it any skin off your nose if others do?

So far, pretty straightforward and a nice moral lesson. But wait a minute: The Mishnah begins, “There are four types of contributors to charity.” Now, this wicked fellow, who doesn’t want to donate and doesn’t want anyone else to do so, is no contributor to charity. So why does the Mishnah label him as such?2

Pirkei Avot contains many beautiful lessons, but there are some messages that are hidden between the lines. This is one of them. The Mishnah teaches us that even a Jew who doesn’t want to give tzedakah is indeed, deep down, a “contributor to charity.” It’s just a matter of time before the outer shell cracks, revealing his inner will.

The Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, was once traveling around to raise funds for tzedakah, and he came to a city where the local magnate was such a miser that he never gave more than a single rusty penny to charity. Nevertheless, the Rebbe visited him and soon found out that this rich man wanted to give but couldn’t because of he had conditioned himself not to. (For the full story, see The Rusty Penny.)

So, getting back to your question: How can a person be such a miser? The answer is, he really can’t. Somewhere, deep inside, hides his inner philanthropist. Right now, for one reason or another, he acts stingily. But one day, his true essence will break through. And each of us can help speed up that process by showing a personal example of caring and giving.3