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Lessons from Utah for the Passover holiday

Latter-day Saints know the message: Give more — in time, in money, in all things. 

A view of Temple Square from the Conference Center rooftop.
The Church of Jesus Christ of La

I was just looking at a WalletHub story about the most recent World Giving Index ranking of giving culture of Americans by state. The state with the highest volunteer rate? Utah (tied with Minnesota). The state with the highest percentage of donated income? Utah (tied with Arkansas, Georgia and Wyoming). The state with the highest percentage of population who volunteer? Utah. The state with the highest percentage of people who donate money? Utah.

That one midsize state would dominate four lists that account for generosity is statistically extremely improbable. And it is not like Utah requires volunteering or has special tax breaks for charitable giving. Nor is it that Utah is particularly wealthy; it has the 13th-highest per-capita income. It has, according to Kiplinger’s, a “mixed tax picture” that is one of the few that taxes social security benefits. Moreover, Utah is, according to the Population Reference Bureau, the youngest state in the union. Only 11% of its population over the age of 65 — it is not full of retirees with time and money.

What is distinctive about Utah that might explain its remarkable generosity? The answer is obvious. It is not the skiing or the basketball, even though the Jazz are dominating the West. It is the Tabernacle.

While fewer than 2% of Americans are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more than half of people living in Utah are. And Latter-day Saints are very religious, by all of the traditional metrics and by every comparison. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 75% of Latter-day Saints read Scripture at least weekly, pray at least daily and attend religious services at least weekly — numbers that dwarf almost every other faith.

I began observing these dynamics when I was a child. I grew up a half mile from a Latter-day Saint church in Short Hills, New Jersey, and always saw how full the church was on Sundays (and other days) and how friendly those associated with it always were. This friendliness was also evident on our family vacation to Utah in 1985. I do not remember what we were touring, but I do recall the tour guide asking us our religion. We told him we were Jewish, and he enthusiastically replied, “You are our cousins!”

When I moved to New York City as a young man in the late 1990s, I used to play pick-up basketball every weekend at the Latter-day Saint church in Columbus Circle.

I marveled at how the church was physically open to everyone at all times — and how, after every game (not every set of games, but every game) the Latter-day Saint teammates used to take the lead in cleaning up the floor. Why would they clean the gym floor after every game? I never asked, but the answer was in their action and their spirit. They did not do it for any practical reasons — we were about to play again. Rather, they did so out of a twin sense of responsibility and respect. It was their church, and of course they were to clean the floor. And the church was a sanctuary worthy of the greatest respect, and of course it deserved to be treated with the respect the act of cleaning conveyed.

I am recalling all of this as the greatest Jewish holiday of Passover is approaching. In preparation, I am contemplating some of its many great teachings en route to fulfilling its awesome purpose: to help us lead happier, better and more meaningful lives.

One of the many, and always highly practical life lessons, to be learned from the Passover holiday comes from the fact God “hardened” the Pharaoh’s heart in the second set of five plagues, after the Pharaoh hardened his own heart in the first set. God was not denying the Pharaoh free will in the second set. God was showing what happens with hearts. They do not return to what they were before. They always change in response to what we choose to do. We do not act, Judaism teaches, because of who we are. Instead, we become the product of what we do. And we can choose what to do. Thus, we can choose who we want to be.

This truth is articulated in an ancient thought experiment among rabbis about the most important verse in the Torah. Ben Zoma’s entry was the verse that became our most fundamental prayer: “Shema Yisrael” (Hear, O Israel) from Deuteronomy 6:4. Ben Nanas’ was from Leviticus, the famous “Love your fellow as yourself.” Shimon Ben Pazi had an entry few Bible students would suggest. Nonetheless, he went with Exodus 29:39, “The first lamb you shall sacrifice in the morning and the second lamb you shall sacrifice in the evening.”

The winner? Ben Pazi. His choice reflected a crucial Jewish tenet: The most important things are what we do every day. Continuity, in other words, is king.

In that sense, the aforementioned Latter-day Saint practices explain each other. A people that cleans up the basketball court after every game will both reflect and cultivate respect with each act. And a people that cultivates such respect will want to worship together with the same regularity. And a people that worships together regularly will invariably ask: What can we do together?

The Latter-day Saint answer, as evidenced in action: Give more — in time, in money, in all things.

Mark Gerson is an entrepreneur and philanthropist who (along with wife, Rabbi Erica Gerson) is perhaps the world’s largest individual supporter of Christian medical missions. He is the co-founder of African Mission Healthcare and co-founder and chairman of United Hatzalah of Israel, the crowd-sourced volunteer system of rapid first responders. He is author of the new book on the Haggadah: “The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life. “