(Published in the Canadian Jewish News, January 28, 2016)
There’s not much you can do with a toonie. But there’s a lot you can do with many of them. When many people join together and each give $2, they might be lucky enough to share a jackpot of $1.6 billion, as three people did in the recent Powerball lottery. Despite odds of more than 292 billion to 1, millions of people bought tickets in pursuit of riches.
These staggering odds aren’t even recognized as having any bearing in Jewish law, which pays no attention to such far-fetched odds. This was the core of the debate over the 18th-century German law that insisted we wait three days before burying the dead, lest one mistakenly be buried alive. The vast majority of rabbinic scholars opposed the law, despite the potential that people be declared dead too early. While the fundamental principle that saving a life pushes aside all commandments of the Torah (with three exceptions), the odds of such early burial were so slim that Jewish law ignored them.
Yet such odds do not seem to faze the masses. Millions were willing to pay $2 for the chance to dream, if ever so fleetingly, of joining the world’s club of billionaires. It may be totally irrational, but, heck, what’s$2? And if it stopped at that, there would be little to be concerned with. And when we recall how money that’s not distributed to lottery winners is spent enhancing public services, there’s much to be gained from lotteries.
However, research has shown lotteries are, in many respects, a tax on the poor, who, due to their often-desperate attempts to escape poverty, effectively throw money in the garbage. (And we can discuss the research that demonstrates lottery winners are within a short period of time no happier than others and that many actually wish they’d never won.) I don’t know if this is enough reason to ban lotteries, but it’s something we must be concerned with.
Rabbinic authorities debate whether a lottery is prohibited as a form of gambling, with the majority differentiating between the two. This is especially true of charity lotteries, where the majority of funds go to the charity, and people tend to buy tickets not because of potential winnings, but as a chance to support a charity.
Of course, in practice, the odds of winning are much greater than any of the government-run lotteries, and it’s perhaps sad that many ticket buyers need the enticement of potential winnings in order to offer their support. Yet such is human nature, and provided there’s no serious harm done, we ought to take advantage of it for the community’s benefit.
It’s this understanding of human nature that helps raise large sums for new buildings. While it would be preferable that such largesse be given anonymously, human nature being what it is, Jewish law not only allows, but strongly encourages that donors’ names be given great prominence, as this will lead to larger amounts raised for charity.
While we may debate the merits of lotteries, there’s no debate that small amounts of money given by everyone can make a huge difference. It’s through the contributions of just a half shekel per person that the Tabernacle was built and maintained.
In that vein, I’d like to suggest that every member of the Jewish community donate half of the saving of the middle class tax cut that took effect Jan. 1. The federal tax rate was lowered by 1.5% on all income between $45,282 and $90,563. That saving, when combined with the provincial tax savings, can total more than $1,000 a year.
If all who benefit would contribute half of their newly found savings to support Jewish education, we as a community could raise millions of dollars a year. It’s money that’s desperately needed and yet within reach, if we all do our part.
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