Julie Salamon is a culture writer for the New York Times and author of the bestselling novella The Christmas Tree. She begins this provocative work on generosity with the following words: "We spend a lot of time thinking about why people are bad. Just as perplexing, maybe more perplexing, is why they are good."
To explore this moral topic, she delves into a treatise written by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, a 12th century physician, philosopher, and scholar known to the Greeks as Maimonides and to his followers as Rambam. He created an eight-step ladder to explain the different levels of giving. The bottom rung would cover tossing some coins to a beggar in order to get rid of him; the top would be making a gift that enables someone to become self-reliant. Salamon uses illustrations from her own encounters with a homeless person on the street and her participation in the Bowery Residents Committee. She also provides fascinating material on corporate giving, celebrity charities, and American aid to other countries.
One quote that really rocked us is from the late Stephen Jay Gould: "The tragedy of human history lies in the enormous potential for destruction in rare acts of evil, not in the high frequency of evil people. Complex systems can only be built step by step, whereas destruction requires but an instant. Thus, in what I like to call the Great Asymmetry, every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness, too often unnoted and invisible as the 'ordinary' efforts of a vast majority."
Salamon guides us through the contemporary world of sharing and makes it clear that there is a lot more at stake when we pick up a pen and write out a check to a charity or volunteer to give blood or make a decision to tithe than we once thought.