Morning services were over, and I strode out of the synagogue ready for a busy day. I was just about to cross the doorway, and elderly man who was a regular at the services grabs my arm and says. “Rabbi walk me to the bus stop.” Oh no, I really do not have time for this, I thought, going through in my head all the things I needed to get done that morning. But I knew I could not say no, so I resigned myself to the task of trying to calculate how long it would take to walk the one and a half blocks at his slow pace. I had a few interactions with him over the years, but we never really had a full conversation. As we walked he started to talk. Europe, the war, his family. And I realized that he was probably taking the bus back to his apartment where he would spend most of the day alone. He just needed to talk. I quickly let go of my impatience and said this is where I am meant to be, and I am doing what I am supposed to be doing, and G-d's plan is that I am supposed to be doing this mitzvah for the next few minutes. We got to the bus stop and the bus was not there, and even though I could have left I waited with him until it arrived. After a busy day that evening I looked back on my day and realized that walking with this elderly man was the most meaningful moment for me, and gave me more sense of purpose than all of the other ‘important’ things I had done. I had really made a difference in someone’s life, and maybe it was not a life-changing difference, but I had given him the personal contact that he needed.
When we are asked to do a favor, our first reaction is often to think in our heads, oh no, what am I going to have to give up? Usually, it is time, sometimes money, and often a quiet moment for ourselves. Yet when we take stock of our lives before this Rosh Hashanah and think about the last year, often the most meaningful moments are when we had the opportunity to give to someone else. A family member or friend who we were there for in a time of illness, a volunteering opportunity we did on a regular basis, or giving to a cause that had an impact on people’s lives. In our day-to-day prioritizing of our lives, we are often focused on life’s practicalities, our jobs, our next vacation, and on how I want to spend my free time. Yet when we step back and look at what is really important, those are not the moments that have a truly lasting impact on us.
Victor Frankel was a psychologist in Germany before WWII. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he describes his experiences as a survivor of Auschwitz. Frankel delves into the inner life of those in the camp, and how they tried to adjust to hell on earth. He describes the different states of shock, denial, hope, and giving up. He describes the steps the Nazis took to dehumanize the inmates. He talks about how everything was taken away from them, their clothes, their belongings, even their hair. Yet for him, the most difficult was his writings, his life’s work in psychology which he had taken with him when he was deported. So what was left? He realized that one of the few things left for him was his humanity, which meant his ability to give to others. He describes how he would set aside part of his day’s rations so he could share them with another inmate who was so malnourished they could not get up. Even if this act was delaying the inevitable, and even if giving up some of the valuable calories might make it less likely that he would survive, Frankel said the opposite was true. It was the despair that killed people more than the malnutrition. Giving to others gave him meaning and purpose, and he saw that those who took care of others were more likely to live.
Jewish teachings place giving as a primary value in the makeup of a person’s character, one that expresses our true Divine essence. Why is chesed, or giving the main value to inculcate within a person? The Torah enjoins us to go in G-d’s ways, but that begs the question of how we can be like G-d, G-d is all-powerful and all-knowing and purely spiritual, none of which is attainable by a human being. The Talmud explains that we are meant to strive to embody the Almighty’s qualities, just as He is merciful, so we should be merciful, and just as he is giving, we should be giving. We are told the world was built on Chesed, and every day we are recipients of G-d giving. And so to be giving is to be Divine.
The scene most associated with the first Jew, Avraham, is that of him standing in the doorway of his tent waiting for someone to pass by so he can invite them in and share his hospitality with them. However instead G-d appears to Avraham. Even though Avraham is having this transcendent experience, the moment the travelers appear he breaks off the dialogue with the Divine to take care of his guests. The Rabbis tell us from here we learn that it is more important to bring guests into one’s home than it is to commune with the Divine. I would like to suggest that this is because the opportunity of giving to another is a moment of Divine encounter. Even more, we are embodying the qualities of G-dliness.
One of my teachers once told me something that really rang true for me. He said that the teachings of the Torah, which are vast and deep really all come down to one primary principle, are you a giver or are you a taker? Western society, and especially Madison Avenue channels a constant message which is that in life we should strive to acquire as much as we can, the right job, the right home, the right life all made up of things we need. But the Torah is telling us something else, which is that it is not about what we get, but about what we give. There is a paradox when we think about who loves the other more, parents or children? I think most people would say that parents love children more, yet it is the children who are constantly receiving, and the parents who are constantly giving. Giving to others, not getting from others is what creates the deepest bonds.
One of the special aspects of life in Israel is that this Jewish value permeates the society. This past week an elderly relative flew in for the holidays, and she was accompanied through the airport in a wheelchair. The flight came in early, so when she got to the pickup spot we were not yet there. The person accompanying her was really supposed to leave her at the pickup spot to get the next person, but after appealing to him he said of course I will wait with her until you arrive. Random acts of kindness like this one occur frequently in our lives here.
This Rosh Hashanah we will be thinking about asking the Almighty for things we need, and we are supposed to do that because we believe He is the source of all. But let’s also think about how we can focus more for the coming year on what we have to give to others, by being more in touch with someone who is lonely, by telling those we love how we feel about them, by being there for a friend or relative when they need us, by volunteering or simply by sharing our caring with another. And in doing so we just might find that we achieve the meaning, purpose and happiness which we all are looking for in our lives.