Torah Musings: Giving Without Getting


Giving Without Getting

Sarah Pachter

Have you ever – out of the blue – received personalized address labels in the mail, only to discover a request for a donation from a charitable organization right alongside the labels? Why do organizations bother creating personalized mailing labels if there is no guarantee the receiver will donate? Isn’t it a waste of time and resources?

Organizations and companies who send free gifts are tapping into a well-known truth about the power of reciprocity. Even when a gift is undesired, it has the power to trigger feelings in the receiver of needing to give back. Companies and organizations are aware of this psychology and know that their costs will be repaid tenfold.

Research has shown that when people receive an item or gift – even if they neither need or want it – often feel obligated to give back. This is true whether or not they have fond feelings towards the giver. In 1971, Dennis Regan tested this theory in an experiment where the participants thought they were undergoing an art appreciation experiment with someone named Joe. In actuality, Joe was an assistant to Dennis. He went in and out of the session, sometimes acting rude to his partner while other times speaking in a friendly manner. Sometimes, he brought a soda to his partner, whether they wanted the soda or not. At the end of the session Joe asked his partner to buy raffle tickets from him. Whether they enjoyed Joe’s company or not, his partner purchased the tickets based on the fact that they had been given a soda, even though Joe was sometimes rude. In other words, the law of reciprocation trumped any other factors.

As humans, we feel uncomfortable when given something until we return the favor in a somewhat equal way. Why does it feel so uncomfortable? We have been trained from a young age to accept this practice as normal. We are taught from childhood to always reciprocate. For example, little Johnny brings a birthday gift to his friend’s party, not because he is contemplating how much his friend, Sammy, will enjoy the basketball, but because he expects to get the goodie bag at the end of the party or a gift on his own birthday.

On a deeper level, if I take without giving back, it implies that I need and depend on you, therefore making me feel “less than” the giver. And most people enjoy feeling equal to others.

The law of reciprocity works both ways. Just as we feel uncomfortable as the receiver of uneven gifts, we feel equally as uncomfortable when we give without receiving. In fact, giving for a lot of people is not about pure altruistic giving, but rather, about reciprocity. It’s a business transaction. Many people never graduate past this form of giving.

It’s no mistake that juniors in high school are signing up to volunteer in droves. This is not because they have a deep desire to “do good,” but because they must do so in order to compete for university acceptance. They think, I have a good resume, two different extra-curricular activities, plus forty hours of community service; all of this increases my odds of being accepted to the college of my choice.

This kind of thinking doesn’t end in the teenage years. Even major corporations give to the world knowing they will receive something in return. Companies such as Starbucks and “give back” a certain percentage of their profits, whether it is because it’s their corporate responsibility or because they need the tax break. It’s expected of them; plus, with good PR comes an increase in sales. It’s about what they are getting; the motives aren’t necessarily so pure.

In our society, giving has become a robotic and selfish tendency instead of the pure and loving act it is intended to be. Giving in a purely altruistic way can seem out of reach. How can we graduate to this level?

If we can experience a moment of true giving just once, we can tap into that feeling. It will touch something within us, and we’ll want to feel that again. What is that feeling? The pleasure of being of service.

Since we all know that an intrinsic good feeling occurs when we give, why is it so hard to actually perform when push comes to shove?

We often view life through a lens of scarcity. Even upon waking, these thoughts can creep up. How many of us wake up, yawn, and think, I’m so tired! I didn’t get enough sleep? Or, I have such a busy day today. I don’t have enough time to get everything done. The key phrase is, I don’t have enough – we experience scarcity. How could we expect ourselves to want to give when we don’t feel we have enough time or resources?

In the physical world, if I have a pizza pie and share two slices, there are now only six left for me. But a candle is a better metaphor for spirituality. When I share the flame of my candle, there is now more light, rather than less. The same occurs when a mother nurses her child. The more one feeds an infant, the more milk is produced. When we give from a spiritual place, we are left with more.

There is another reason it is so hard to give altruistically, a hurdle that may be much more challenging to overcome. When others do not reciprocate after we give, we feel taken advantage of. Many of my students have shared sentiments concerning how hard it is to keep giving to another who never returns the favor.

But here’s the thing: When we give expecting nothing in return, we may not get help directly from the person, but Hashem will help us.

I once heard a famous story about Asher Bookstein, as told by Rabbi Yaakov Cohen. Three families lived in an apartment building, one atop the next, in Jerusalem. The family on the first floor was concerned about break-ins, and decided to build an iron gate around their porch to prevent robberies. The Frager family on the second floor was not pleased with this solution, since it could potentially enable a robber to climb from the iron gate and break into their second-floor apartment more easily. They asked the family on the first floor to utilize a different solution, such as an alarm system for protection. But because the gate had already been built, the first floor’s family was unwilling to make any changes. The family living atop them both – the  Booksteins – heard there was a disagreement in the building, and wanted everyone to get along. They decided to pay for the Frager family to have an iron gate built around their porch on the second floor in order to prevent a thief from accessing their apartment as well. Everyone agreed to this and was happy. The Booksteins paid out of pocket, happy to help, and expected nothing in return. They did it for the sake of peace.

A few weeks later, the Booksteins were out one evening while their fourteen-year-old daughter babysat their younger children. Somehow, a fire broke out in their home, blocking the front door. The children, trapped inside, were terrified and calling for help. People climbed the stairs to the top floor, trying to break down the front door, but couldn’t. There was simply no safe way out, and the ambulance was not close by. It was only a matter of time before something horrific happened. Suddenly, two young men climbed the iron gate on the first floor, then the iron gate of the second floor’s porch. They were able to enter the Booksteins apartment, breaking in through their porch door. Those two iron gates saved the Booksteins’ very own children.

The Booksteins gave wholeheartedly, expecting nothing in return. Yet, Hashem repaid them in a priceless way for their altruistic act of giving by saving their children’s lives.

When we give without anticipating getting, we always receive more in the end – whether it be physically, in material bounty, or spiritually, from the energy we receive from Above.