Thursday, February 14, 2013

Give and Take

There is an in interesting tradition with reference to the slicing of the Challah at the festive Shabbat and holidays meal. Typically one person makes the blessing over the two loaves and dispenses pieces to the guests and family at the table. We are taught that the one who recites the blessing should not distribute the slices by placing them into the hands of the guests and family members. Rather he should place the challah slices on a platter and pass the platter along so that each person can take a piece for him/herself.
And why? The reason for not handing out the challah is because to hand someone food is to minimize them, that is, to enact a scene of dependency. Even at our own table with guests who know they are respected it is inappropriate to do something in a manner that is demeaning. Giving to another, while surely benifiting them, puts the recepient in the one-down position relative to the giver.
The process itself make the giver feel empowered and the recipient often feels belittled.

The Torah this week teaches us a similar truth. At the begining of the parsha of Teruma the Torah tells us that G-d told Moshe to take donations, in Hebrew a 'teruma', from the Children of Israel. In the words of the 'pasuk', "...from every man whose heart motivates him to give you shall take my 'teruma'." The language of the verse presents an obvious challenge. First Moshe is told to take the donations from every person who wants to voluntarily give. Then the verse goes on to say that from those people Moshe should "take" it.
What's going on? If the gift is voluntary it would make sense to say "from them you should receive it" not "take". If Moshe is taking the gift the implication is that it's coerced and not voluntary!

I believe the interpretation of the verse has everything to do with the lesson of the Challah we discussed above. The 'teruma' was the first call to national giving in the experience of the People of Israel. It was tzedaka, in this case designated for the then being constructed Temple. Moshe was told not only that he should collect. He was being told how he should collect. G-d was teaching Moshe and through him to all of us the proper way to give. It is wonderful to help another in need. A generous and emapathic heart is a good thing. Moshe was told to indeed honor those who want to make a difference and contribute to the worthy cause at hand. But, and this is a big but, Moshe was told that the donor needs to contribute in such a way that s/he does not lord over the recipient. The benifactor should extend his/her hand with his/her gift, make it available. Then, it is for the one benifiting to take it from him/her, thereby assuming initiative in the process and moving from a dependent to an agent in his/her behalf.

We spend much of our lives giving. And I am not talking here about bestowing monetary gifts and acts of tzedaka. I mean giving in our role as parents and as spouses and in the workplace. We give all the time. Those of us who have matured understand that the need to give is a powerful piece of the quality of our lives. In truth, at times our need to give is even greater than the need of others to receive.
In giving we feel ourselves purposeful and yes powerful. We are somebody when we help another in ways both small and big.

This past week, one morning I was standing outside a Bais Medrash waiting for it to open. As it turned out the man with the key never showed up. I noticed a woman walking up and down the block seemingly searching for something. I had no idea what. Finally, a moment or two before I was off to another Bais Medrash I knew would be open, the woman said to me "Excuse me, can you help me a moment?"
To be honest, I was a bit concerned with what I might be committing myself to and to whom, but I said "sure". She then led me to her apartment half way down the block. We enterred and sitting in a chair was a man I took to be her husband. He was clearly paralyzed.
The woman asked if I would be so kind as to help lift him into his wheelchair so she might take him outside. I did. Then I helped her move the wheeolchair out the door and down the steps into the street. She expressed thanks and my kindness was done. But not before I told her she did me the favor in allowing me to help. And indeed she did.

We all look for these kind of pure and simple opportunities to give. They make us feel good about ourselves. We need them. But it's important that we be careful as possible to not minimize the other even in providing them the help they need. True the poor person will be all too glad to take our tzedaka no matter how we perform the act of giving. In the end, for them, its about the money and meeting their desparate needs. Yet we need to be careful to not rob them of their dignity in the process. We need to give a smile as much as a dollar. We would do well to stand up and show respect when we give. Sometimes I think it important we read the letter they bring with them in their efforts to collect, if only to show interest in their story. And perhaps, taking the lesson from the portion, we would do well to try not to put our money in their hand directly so as not to highlight their sense of dependency. Their are many imaginative ways to give, which allow us to feel good about ourselves, without evidencing an attendent superiority.

This concept is true in all the 'giving' situations in our life. When we help another our real task is to lay out before them the opportunity we are providing. We offer the other a path and a direction. We may be willing to walk by their side. But we must resist the impulse to do it for the other. In the end the initiative must come from the other. In giving we do with someone else, not for someone else, if it's at all possible for them to do it themselves.

In a true act of giving both the giver and the recepient feel good. The giver feels s/he has made a difference in another's life. The recepient feels good because s/he has used an opportunity presented him/her to help him/herself. The giver makes it possible for the recipient to move past feeling like a victim. Through the donor's gift s/he can be an agent in his/her own behalf.
If only one or the other feels good the act of giving is inherently flawed!

Shabbat Shalom


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