It is an idea that many of us are familiar with, yet we may not realize that its significance in our lives as Jews, and especially as parents, is immense.
At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Hashem commands Am Yisrael to collect materials for the construction of the Mishkan, with each person in the nation donating to the Mishkan as he sees fit. The language that Hashem uses, however, seems peculiar, almost counter-intuitive-
“ויקחו לי תרומה…תקחו את תרומתי” , “and you shall take for me a donation…they shall take my donation”. Shouldn’t Hashem have said “you shall give to me a donation”? Why does G-d use the language of “taking” when referring to the act of giving? Had G-d been speaking specifically to Moshe or the leaders of the nation, we might have suggested that Hashem was asking the leaders to “take (collect) the donation on His behalf” from the people. G-d’s request, however, is directed towards the entire nation. The question, therefore, remains- why does HaShem direct the people to “take,” rather than “give” a donation?
Many commentaries suggest a simple, yet extremely poignant, answer. Hashem is using the construction of the Mishkan as an opportunity to teach Am Yisrael a fundamental lesson- the power and importance of giving. In contrast to the contemporary view of giving, where a person feels that he loses each time he gives to another, the Jewish view of giving is that one who gives actually receives more than he gives. The act of giving to another- be it from one’s resources, knowledge, time, or simply giving of oneself- is incredibly meaningful, and can impact upon one’s own life in a most significant way.
Jewish thought abounds with sources that stress the importance of giving and bestowing kindness upon others. Most fundamentally, Dovid Hamelech in Sefer Tehillim declares עולם חסד יבנה””, “the world is built upon Chessed”, while the Mishna in Avot 1:2 famously lists גמילת חסדים, acts of kindness, as one of the three pillars upon which the world stands. These foundational sources are not simply “nice phrases”, but instead underscore a fundamental point. Chessed and giving are central to our existence, and profoundly impact all aspects of our relationships- our relationship with G-d, our relationship with those around us, and our relationship with ourselves.
The Ramchal, in his seminal work Mesilat Yesharim, writes that G-d created man for one purpose- in order to give to man, and to allow him to benefit from, and bask in, God’s own wonder and splendor. , King David’s proclamation, עולם חסד יבנה , can thus be understood in a deeper, more literal, sense. The world itself was created so that G-d could give to man. When an individual gives to another, therefore, he imitates G-d actions and expresses his own “G-dliness.” Thus each time an individual gives to another, he grows more deeply in his relationship with Hashem.
In his pivotal work Michtav Me’eliyahu, Rav Eliyahu Dessler notes as well the powerful effect that giving can have on interpersonal relationships. While it is commonly perceived that people “give because they love”, Rav Dessler argues that the opposite is actually true. More fundamentally, people “love because they give.” The more we give to another, the more we come to love that person, due to the time and effort that they invest in him/her. This is why, suggests Rav Dessler, the most powerful bond of love is that of a parent to a child- as parents give endlessly to their children from the moment that they are born. In this vein, Rav Dessler points out that the root of the Hebrew word for love, אהבה, is the Aramaic word הב, to give- because we come to love others by giving to them.
Finally, as highlighted by the opening of this week’s Parsha, giving has a profound impact on our relationship with ourselves, and our own sense of self. Many authorities note that the Hebrew word for giving, נתן, is a palindrome; it can be read the same way in both directions- in order to highlight that one who gives really receives in return. In his commentary on Pirkei Avot, Ethics from Sinai, Mr. Irving Bunim adds that the Hebrew phrase for bestowing kindness upon another, גמילות חסדים,is phrased in the plural- in order to show that “every act of kindness is, in reality, a two-fold act. While you are certainly doing something for the next man, you are also doing something for yourself.”
As parents, one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is to teach them how to be givers. Children naturally grow up self-absorbed and egocentric, and if left to their own devices, their selfishness and self-centeredness could well continue throughout their lives. From an early age, therefore, we must cultivate within our children a sense of the “other”, and the importance of giving to another. The more our children experience the wonder that comes with making another person happy, and the more they express this “Godliness” within themselves, the more this aspect of their personalities will become an integral part their daily lives.
And as each child becomes more thoughtful and independent, the importance and power of giving must be stressed even more. A “bar/bat mitzvah chessed project” can, for example, become a powerful tool, enabling a child to assume the responsibility of helping someone less fortunate than themselves in celebration of their important milestone. It is important, however, that chessed and giving are not simply seen as a one-time rite of passage- but instead become an integral part of their lives. Many studies have shown that one of the most effective ways to help “at-risk” teenagers is to give them a role as givers- helping and mentoring others. This experience provides the teens with a sense of purpose and connection, thus igniting, as we have noted, the G-dliness within their own personalities. Clearly, the attainment of such meaning and purpose can enrich the life of any teenager.
How can we successfully raise our children as givers? I would suggest a few practical points to keep in mind:
- As noted, we must consciously begin teaching this early on. The earlier that kindness is ingrained in our childrens’ psyche, the more natural it will be for them. Seek out opportunities for your child help others, and help them experience the amazing feeling that such opportunities bring.
- At the same time, we should realize that giving can impact and inspire children (and people) of all ages. We should encourage all our children, at every age and stage of life, to involve themselves in opportunities of giving and making a difference in the lives of those around them.
- One important way we can help our children become givers is by allowing them to give to us. While at first glance this may seem simple, it is not as easy as it sounds. Enabling others to give means happily accepting help or a gift that you don’t want or need- simply to allow the other person to give to you. This is a crucial skill in all relationships, but is particularly important in raising kids. By graciously accepting the picture your toddler made for you; or letting your child help you build the Succah, even though you could have done it much quicker by yourself, you enable your children to give to you, thereby allowing them to feel the beauty of giving, and the incredible satisfaction that comes along with it.
- As with most important lessons, modeling is crucial. If we live our lives as givers of our resources or of ourselves; if we show our children what it means to live a life of giving, both within and outside the family; then our children will learn firsthand the value of being givers, themselves.