Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 22 July 2006 / 26 Tammuz 5766

Straightjacket of Stinginess

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Anonymous
Dear Rabbi,

To be honest, I am not a very giving person. I know I am more of a taker than a giver. Most people consider this a bad thing, but really I think it makes more sense. Still, I was wondering if you had any insights for me.
Dear Anonymous,

There was once a certain miser who never gave but always took. One day he fell off a bridge into the river below. As he was about to drown, someone noticed him and shouted, “Give me your hand!” The miser answered, “I never give anything to anybody!” “In that case”, replied the man as he stretched out his arm, “take my hand!” The miser took hold of the man’s hand and was saved.

This story illustrates the Jewish outlook on the reciprocity between giving and taking. A person is apt to think that giving results in loss. But, in reality, without giving, one will ultimately drown in solitude and anonymity. Giving, on the other hand, initiates a dynamic process of mutual sharing with others that ultimately reaps great rewards. Giving is an investment with great dividends.

The Torah expresses this idea in the wording used to describe the Jewish People’s contribution to the Tabernacle. The verse states: “And they gave” (Ex. 30:12). The Hebrew term used is “v’natnu” which is spelled vav-nun-tav-nun-vav. This word is spelled exactly the same read forward and backward, expressing the idea that giving initiates a reciprocal process resulting in receiving.

In fact, giving is so great that G-d’s name yud-hey and -vav-hey actually infuses the very act of giving. Consider a person giving a coin of charity to someone in need. The round coin in the hand of the giver corresponds to the round letter yud of G-d’s name. The five fingers on the hand of the giver correspond to the letter hey whose gematria (numerical equivalent) is five. His outstretched arm forms the shape of the straight letter vav. The five fingers of the needy person’s receiving hand correspond to the final hey of G-d’s name. And so the circuit is completed, energizing giving with the Divine Presence.

I’ll conclude with a very instructive parable:

Once a person was given a preview of the afterlife. In the chamber identified to him as Punishment, he saw people seated at a great banquet with the most aromatic and delicious-looking food. He thought to himself, “This doesn’t seem so bad.” However, as he got a closer look, he realized that everyone was craving for the food set before them, but they couldn’t eat it because each person had poles fastened to his arms and couldn’t bend his elbows to put the food in his mouth.

He was then taken to the chamber of Reward. There he saw the same scene. There were people seated around a great banquet of aromatic and delectable food. He expected them to be enjoying and partaking of the food, but to his surprise, they all had rods bound to their arms as well. However, here they didn’t starve. Even though nobody could feed himself, each was able to reach across the table to feed, and to be fed, by the person opposite to him.

Those who view giving as a loss and are only concerned about satiating their own desires will be perpetually frustrated by their paralyzing pursuit of pleasure. But people who give to others will develop a habit that ensures eternal receiving.

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