By Yael Splansky
“You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God . . . to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God . . . ” (Deuteronomy 29:9–11). Parashat Nitzavim is a retelling of the exchange of giving and receiving that took place at Mount Sinai.
Kabbalah is the art and discipline of “receiving.” The modern kabbalist Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag1 taught that there are four ways of giving and receiving:
The first way is “to receive in order to receive.” This is what a baby or a very young child does. This is what an egotist of any age does. Like the baby birds with desperately open mouths larger than their bodies, there are times when we are so needy, nothing and no one else matters. The immediate- and end-goal are one and the same—to get.
The second way is “to give in order to receive.” This is conventional morality. Most interactions between ordinary good people fall into this category. For example, I give my neighbor a Christmas present each year. Why? So he’ll continue to keep an eye on my house when I’m out of town? So he won’t complain when I let the weeds grow too tall? So he’ll speak well of me in the neighborhood? “Giving in order to receive” makes the world livable.
The third way is “to give in order to give.” This altruistic giving may be held up in other religious systems as the highest form of morality, but Ashlag says it is actually not enough. “To give in order to give” is a kind of adolescent idealism through which we all eventually need to pass. In Judaism, “to give in order to give” is a dishonest denial of our humanness. The need to receive should not be denied or pretended away; it is essential if we are to live. Without receiving breath, food, or a salary, we would die.
So what is the Jewish ideal? What is the highest, holiest way to interact with others? It’s “to receive in order to give.” Consider the scene: You are out to lunch with an old friend. The check comes. You both reach for it. You could do one of four things: 1. You could simply and selfishly accept the friend’s offer to pay. 2. You could say, “This time I’ll pay, next time will be your turn.” 3. You could insist and insist and insist until he relents and you pay. 4. Or you could finally agree to let your friend pay, because you understand it will give him pleasure to host you. By receiving, you actually strengthen the relationship. This is the best Jewish response. Here the receiver also becomes giver.
I often hear mourners say how exhausting shivah is. It’s true. I believe it’s true, because “receiving in order to give” is hard work. The task of the mourner during the seven long days of shivah is to wholeheartedly accept the care of others, to receive condolences and comfort in order to grow strong enough to give again.
Another example of “receiving in order to give” comes from one of my favorite Yiddish folktales.2 To tell the story well, you really have to stretch it out, but here are the highlights, which I once shared with the good people who volunteer to turn my synagogue into a homeless shelter each Thursday night.
Reb Yitzchak Berkover is the richest man in town. His youngest daughter is soon to be married. Everything is arranged. No expense is spared. Everyone is invited, including the poor folk from the neighboring town of Lipovitch. On the morning of the wedding, three wagons are sent for them. Everything is going according to plan. The feast is prepared; the chuppah goes up, when suddenly a horseman arrives out of breath to deliver the blow. “They aren’t coming.” “What do you mean they aren’t coming!?” asks Reb Yitzchak. “They say they are already full from a wedding this morning, so they will only come to your daughter’s wedding if each is promised a ruble.” The family and friends who have gathered burst into laughter, but Reb Yitzchak flies into a rage. “You fool, why didn’t you bargain with them? The nerve! Forget it! I’ll get along without them. They’ll see. Fiddlers, strike up a tune! Let’s begin!” But with the sound of the first note, Reb Yitzchak changes his mind; he mounts the horse and takes off in the direction of Lipovitch. After a weak attempt at negotiation and an impressive speech from the lead-beggar, Reb Yitzchak Berkover relents: “Get in the wagons! A ruble for each of you!” Twenty minutes later, the father-of-the-bride takes his place under the chuppah; the poor gather round.
When the feast is served, Reb Yitzchak and his closest relatives fulfill the mitzvah of serving the poor with their own hands. One poor man raises his glass for a toast. “To your health, Reb Yitzchak! We wish you long life and happiness from your daughter the bride!” He replies, “And to you, brothers, L’chayim! May God bless you among the whole congregation of Israel!”
After the meal, the musicians begin to play. Reb Yitzchak dances to the center of the hora circle; his satin coattails fly like the wings of an eagle. His eyes gaze upward; his thoughts soar higher than the seventh heaven. He locks arms with the poor and shouts: “Brothers! Let us be joyful as only Jews know how to be joyful! Fiddlers! Play something a little faster, louder, livelier, stronger!” They begin to spin. And the rich man cries big joyful tears.
“Now that,” concludes the storyteller, “is how a Jew is happy. That is how a real Jewish wedding ought to be.”
What has happened here? The receiver became the giver. And there was dignity secured for them both. The beggars had a lock on the rich man’s mitzvah. They had the power to deny him the mitzvah and the joy that comes with fulfilling a mitzvah. And they had the power to give it away, too (or in this case, to sell it for a fair price). When the rich man became the receiver, no one held the other hostage. That meeting on the dance floor was a true meeting. Reb Yitzchak learned the power of receiving in order to give. This is the Jewish ideal. We first learned this lesson at Sinai. We received God’s Torah, so that we could spend our years and our centuries giving, by way of mitzvot. When we place ourselves at the foot of God’s mountain, we are likely to find our way back to the dignity of receiving.
1.For more on Ashlag and his disciple, Manitou, see: “The Philosopher, the Rabbi, and the Rhetorician” by Bar-Ilan University Prof. Susan Handelman, College English, vol 72 no. 6, (Urbana, IL, The National Council of Teachers of English, July 2010)
2. Mordecai Spector, “A Meal for the Poor,” trans. Milton Hindus, in A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, ed. Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg (New York: Penguin Books, 1989), pp. 250–55
Rabbi Yael Splansky is an associate rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada. She is the editor of Siddur Pirchei Kodesh and she is a fourth-generation Reform rabbi.