To live is to give

Overseeing seven non-profits whose continued existence and ongoing success depends on people’s desire and ability to give, affords me insight into this important human character trait.

One of the initiatives which is closest to my heart is the “70 Faces-Shivim Panim” project – recording for posterity testimonies of Holocaust Survivors who have managed to rebuild, each one in their own way. Each of these survivors has a unique perspective, forged in the valley of death and lived out over the past seventy years.

One particular survivor, who we have had the privilege of taking back to Poland with a number of groups, Mrs Eva Newman, affectionately known as ‘Bobby’ tells of her experiences at the end of the war on the infamous death marches from Auschwitz into Germany. When I asked her what gave her the strength to keep on going despite the thirst, starvation and sub-zero weather conditions, she recalls the older woman who was marching next to her. This woman’s strength was failing fast and Bobby realised that if she didn’t support her and give her strength she would simply despair and give up the battle to live.  The ability to give to another in those horrific conditions gave Bobby a cause to live for and enabled her to continue, survive and ultimately rebuild. Or as another remarkable 99 year old survivor, Mrs Pearl Benisch so often remarks in her passionate talks to youngsters- ‘As long as I live I want to give-to live is to give”

The ability to give to another extends far further than the coin that we extract from our pocket. Giving lies at the bedrock of every healthy society. Without it, all relationships are on a collision course. A selfish society, one that resembles the Hobbesian ‘state of nature’ is doomed to fail as people compete with each other for every morsel of food.

The Megilla recounts that when Haman saw the Jewish nation he saw a nation that was mefuzar u meforad, scattered and dispersed, estranged from each other and that which unites all Jews. This was a nation that had essentially lost its way, to the extent that they had willingly participated in a banquet celebrating their own demise.  The Jewish people were at a crossroads with all the signs pointing to oblivion.

The turning point in the Purim story comes when Esther risks her life to appear uninvited in front of Achashverosh. Before doing so she sends a message to Mordechai to gather together all the Jews in Shushan, “vetzumu alay” to ask them to unite in fasting and prayer for the success of her singular endeavour. Emboldened by this unified act of all the Jews giving of themselves in support of her courageous act, she is able to approach the king and ultimately point the accusing finger at Haman, thereby saving her fellow Jews from annihilation.

It therefore comes as no surprise that when establishing the festival of Purim and legislating its mitzvoth, that giving is a dominant motif. The mitzvot of sending mishloach manot, gifts of food and matanot le evyonim, gifts to the destitute to enable them to also have a festive Purim meal are central to the day. On Purim, more than any other day of the year, we go out of our way to reach out to others, to give and to share with them and to show them that we care. ‎

Purim is a children friendly holiday with fancy dress and festive treats. I am often struck by the stark contrast between Purim and Halloween, on both days children dress up, but the difference between GIVING mishloach manot and TAKING through ‘trick or treating’ couldn’t be greater.

On Purim we safeguard our future by teaching our children to share their joy with others through their giving of mishloach manot to friends and matanot laevyonim to the needy. The emphasis on giving and sharing with others is an integral part of their enjoyment of the day.

Acts of giving, be they big or small, build us into greater people, into individuals who can see beyond ourselves and into people who can build society and the world into a better place.

About the Author
Rabbi Naftali Schiff is the CEO of Jewish Futures Trust (JFT) an umbrella organization containing a number of educational charities including GIFT and JRoots.