Like many new parents, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan let the world know about the birth of their daughter Max in a familiar way: on Facebook, in a joyous post.
Unlike most new parents, however, the Chan-Zuckerberg duo was able to make another startling announcement at the same time: In order to help make the world a better place for their daughter—and for all children—they plan to give away 99% of their Facebook shares—a value of about $45 billion—in their lifetimes.
“You’ve already given us a reason to reflect on the world we hope you live in,” Chan and Zuckerberg wrote, explaining they have a desire to improve the lots of future generations, not only “those already here.” I don’t know if Dr. Chan and Mr. Zuckerberg have read many classic Jewish texts, but their words perfectly echo those of a classic Jewish story in the Midrash Rabbah, a compilation of tales commenting on the Hebrew Bible.
The story goes that one day the Roman Caesar Adrayanus was walking through the Israeli city of Tiberius when he saw a wizened old Jewish man stooping to plant fig trees in his orchard.
“How old are you, old man?” the Caesar asked him.
“One hundred,” the Jewish man replied.
“And do you really think you’ll live to see the fruits of your fig trees?” the Caesar sneered. “Just because you woke up this morning doesn’t mean you’ll live through this day!”
The old man was unfazed. “Just as those who came before me planted trees for my use, so I’m content to plant trees for future generations,” he calmly replied to the Caesar. For thousands of years, this has been the Jewish response: While we might not live to see the fruits of our labors, we are obligated to do our best to make the world better for all who come after us.
The Chan-Zuckerberg foundation—like those ancient fig trees—represents a powerful belief in the importance of planning for future generations. No doubt, they’ll bear fruit and enrich the lives of countless others. However, according to Jewish thinking, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg already have made one of the greatest contributions they can, simply by having their new daughter—expressing the optimism inherent in bringing another life into the world.
One doesn’t have to be a parent to share in this optimism: Everyone who has a hand in raising a child is considered as if they share partly in a child’s parentage. We are all parents, we are all teachers, and this, in Jewish thinking, makes us each uniquely privileged to do our part in making the world a better place.
Allow me to quote one final Jewish commentary, this time from the Talmud. This quote involves a pun. The word in Hebrew for “your children” is banayich. “Your builders” is pronounced bonayich.
The first century Talmudic sage Rabbi Elazar contrasted these two words. In a passage reading, “Your children will have abundant peace,” he famously said, “Do not read banayich, your children, but bonayich, your builders.” Our children are more than merely manifestations of our physical DNA. They are carriers of our spiritual DNA, too. They carry forward our values and our goals. They internalize the lessons we choose to teach them and carry on the work that we in our lifetimes can only begin.
I expect good things from the amazing new Chan-Zuckerberg Foundation. But I can’t help expecting even greater things from little Max. Few of us have the financial resources of a Zuckerberg or a Chan. But we all have the ability to vote our confidence in future generations: by bringing life into the world, and helping shape future generations as parents, relatives, teachers, and friends.