Torah Musings: Giving Bounces Back


Giving Bounces Back

Sarah Pachter

As a young adult, my dear friend Eliana lost both her parents within one year’s time. Simultaneously, she was experiencing a high-risk pregnancy, complete with every uncomfortable symptom imaginable. To the outside world, her life seemed to be crumbling, and she had every reason to be despondent, withdrawn, and focused on her own needs.

Ironically, almost every time we spoke, she would ask me, “How can I help you?” “What can I do for you?” This was not exclusive to our relationship. It seemed that she was constantly seeking out opportunities for chessed. I couldn’t understand how she had the strength to always reach out to others when she herself was going through such a challenging time. Her desire to give seemed to know no bounds – and I was in awe.

After reading an article by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein on the topic of giving, I began to understand where her strength and joy stemmed from. A man wrote a letter to his rabbi explaining his problems and seeking advice. His letter read:

I am not doing well in my school. I sweat the small stuff. I have a hard time waking up in the morning. I have trouble focusing. I have difficulty with prayer.

The rabbi wrote back by simply returning his original letter with the first word of every sentence circled: “I.” The rabbi kindly pointed out that each of the man’s many complaints began the same way, “I…” It was clear to him that the man’s focus was on making himself happy. He explained that if it was happiness he was seeking, one of the optimal ways to experience it fully would be through focusing on, and giving to, others.

Giving is something that can bring joy to anyone involved in the act. The Hebrew word for giving, natan, is a palindrome, spelling the same word forward as it does backwards. This is a clear symbol for what the word teaches. Whether you’re the one receiving or you’re the one giving, there is so much to be gained. When we give to others, the gift bounces right back in our direction. We benefit just as much, if not more, when we give.

Acting in a predominantly self-focused way can lead to feelings of sadness and isolation, yet when we reach out to give to others, we gain the inner joy we all long for.[1]

When I thought more about my friend’s situation, I realized that it was actually her acts of selfless giving that gave her power. She appeared energized and full of life when caring for others. Perhaps reaching out helped her to move the focus from her own internal pain to the joy inherent in lending a hand to others. It seemed she was a perfect example of how giving actually benefits the giver.

It all came together for me when I recently went hiking here in California. I am so lucky to live in a state where we are surrounded by the unique beauty that only nature can provide. Northern California features gigantic redwood trees that are as majestic as they are tall and strong.

The trees of the redwood forests can grow up to 300 feet tall, and the largest redwood to date weighs approximately 4,000,000 lbs![2]

The assumption is that a tree of that magnitude must have incredibly deep roots. However, after researching, scientists have found that redwood trees, while hundreds of feet tall, have roots that reach a mere 5-6 feet into the ground. How could a tree of this magnitude hold itself up? How is it that an entity with a such a seemingly shallow foundation could be so strong, grow so large, and live so long? The answer is actually found in these apparently underwhelming roots. The roots of the redwood tree don’t grow downward, they grow outward. The roots reach out to the other trees surrounding them and latch on to one another. Similarly, when we reach out and give to others, we grow stronger and taller. The support we offer to others actually supports us.

Even in difficult times, when it feels like we may not have deep roots to stand on, if we can reach out and connect in order to give to others, that gives us the power we need.

Sometimes in life, pushing ourselves to give to others when we ourselves are entrenched in hardship seems like an impossibility. It’s 3 p.m. on a weekday, and we may be knee-deep in emails and meetings, when we are approached to join a Mealtrain for a new parent or help on a committee for the upcoming shul event. Often, our first reaction may be to ignore the call to help because we are too tired. Stretching ourselves to give at that moment feels like jumping over a huge puddle – we just don’t think we will make it across. But Hashem merely wants us to try. He says to us, Yes it seems impossible, but just do your best, and I will help lead you over the obstacle. Often when we push ourselves, we find we have more energy than we did before.

There is an incredible story of a couple who became new parents one glorious summer day.  After a few weeks of sleepless nights, both parents were exhausted. In spite of his sleepless state, the new father went to visit a close friend who was recovering from a mild surgery, and brought his newborn baby along to cheer his spirits. When the visit was over, he drove back home and practically ran to his room and passed out from sheer exhaustion. He was lacking sleep to a severe degree, but felt proud he had made time for bikur cholim (visiting the sick). Suddenly, a ringing phone woke him from his deep sleep. He quickly silenced it and continued his midday nap. The phone kept ringing. He saw it was his friend whom he had just visited, and chose to silence it. The phone rang once more. He lay there with an internal battle: To answer? Or not? It might be urgent, he ultimately decided. Reluctantly, he brought his hand to the phone and chose to answer this time. Expecting to hear of some sort of emergency, he was shocked when his friend simply asked if he had any Advil.

This new parent was seething inside. He thought to himself, All that incessant calling just for some Advil? Internally he was fuming, but agreed to bring it to him. Still drowsy from his nap and a bit frustrated, the man went back to his car to head to his friend’s house. He reached his hand to open the car door, and to his horror, he saw that he had left his newborn in the backseat in the scorching sun! Had he not answered the call to chessed, the unthinkable may have occurred.[3]

When we give, that selfless act comes back to us in one form or another. We may stand stronger, gain more energy, or in some extreme instances, our act of chessed may actually save lives. We are often tired, overwhelmed, and don’t think we can push ourselves anymore. But we will find that when we do, it actually creates more energy for ourselves than we realize. Much like the redwood tree – and my good friend Eliana – reaching out just might be the secret strength that enables us to grow and reach heights we never thought imaginable. This growth, this strength, is precisely the energy that giving reciprocates back. When we stretch beyond the “I,” we are given back a life full of joy and meaning.

[1] Taken from an article written by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, “The Power of Kindness.”


[3] This story was heard from a lecture delivered at the Tisha B’Av worldwide event 2016 by the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation.