In Ethics of Our Fathers we learn that the world stands on three things:
- on Torah,
- on worship, and
- on acts of loving kindness, that is, on giving.
Yet we live in a world where giving is seen as the exception not the rule.
We buy "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books by the millions, trying to reassure ourselves that there are still kind and caring people around. Perhaps we even hope to be inspired to be one of those people.
Our intentions are good, but the comforts of life get in the way.
At the same time, however, we are bombarded with advertising, exhorting us to travel Club Med, to relax by the pool drink in hand, to make sure we don't miss the latest movie. While traveling and entertainment without a doubt have their place, a steady diet of them does not promote a life of giving.
Our intentions are good. But "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?" or "Survivor" is on tonight, and the beer is cold in the fridge, and those new couches sure are comfortable.
We think we are just pampering ourselves a little bit. But is it as refreshing as we imagined?
GIVING HAS ITS DOWN-SIDE
Whenever I have to teach in the evenings I find myself, at around 4 p.m., starting to pray that my students will cancel. There's a quick pang of disappointment when they actually show up. But after they leave I feel excited and invigorated. The learning, the reaching out to another human being, is stimulating and nurturing to me. I am restored by it.
I think I've introduced my children to the pleasures of giving, at least in terms of having guests. If a (rare) Shabbos arrives and no one is coming, they beg me or their father to call someone at the last minute or to bring a guest back from shul.
Although my husband actually enjoys the thought of a quiet family evening, he can't withstand the pressure. You might argue (as he does) that giving begins at home and, therefore, true kindness would be respecting his wishes. What can I say? We're working on it ...
The Torah recommends giving as an antidote to many destructive tendencies:
- If you're self-absorbed, give to others.
- If you're jealous, give to others.
- If you're depressed, give.
- If you dislike someone, do a kindness for them.
I hope my Shabbos guests don't start speculating whether their invitation arose from my antipathy towards them. While those occasions have been rare, I have used this technique, and it has changed our relationship.
In general you do not lose by giving. Giving is frustrating if you expect to receive in return. If you give with expectations of reward, you'll be disappointed. But if you give because you know it's right, as a way of emulating the Almighty, you'll only gain.
A LEGACY THAT FEELS GOOD NOW
Many years ago, my husband asked a class he was teaching what they would like inscribed on their tombstones. One woman suggested "she did errands." It was a joke with a bitter ring of truth.
On our tombstones will not be a list of the number of TV shows watched, magazines read or lattes drunk.
We know that on our tombstones will not be a list of the number of TV shows watched, magazines read or lattes drunk. It won't tell how many department stores we shopped at or how many bargains we found. But it may describe our being there for others in need, our giving to our family and community, our selflessness.
If we try, we can lift ourselves above the world around us, a world that is forever trying to pull us down, to discourage concern and care and doing for others. If we try, we can make ourselves experts in giving, in all its nuances and opportunities. That will be a precious legacy indeed.
And I'll share a little selfish secret –- we'll feel better too.