People on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv are reflected in a glass window..
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
I want to share a story that made me reflect on why we give to people in need.
It was 6.15 a.m. and I was at a Starbucks on the New York Throughway seeking a dose of Americana to keep me awake. I was tired and bleary eyed, but became instantly awake at a hesitant voice behind me begging to purchase a portion of a coffee cup for fifty cents. The barista, apologized, but told him it wasn’t possible. I hesitated. I wanted to help, but didn’t want to make him feel wretched. In the end, I quietly ordered a coffee for him. The barista looked up and said, “you are a nice man.”
Her compliment made me uncomfortable. I didn’t think I did it to feel good or to be complimented. I did it because it was the right thing to do. A man, too poor for a simple cup of coffee, happened to ask for one precisely when I was there. It was obvious that G-d put me in this place, at this time, to help him The man accepted the cup and said,” thank you.” A simple thank you. That was all. And it was perfect.
Human to human. I did what anyone would do and what he certainly would have done for me if our roles were reversed. I told him that he was welcome and expressed the wish that G-d enable him to do such things for others. The barista overheard. Once again she complimented me and once again I felt uncomfortable. She was offering a genuine compliment, but I was uncomfortable.
It got me to thinking as I strolled back to my car processing these conflicting feelings. It felt good to help. It felt bad to be complimented. Part of it was my concern that the recipient would feel self-conscious. Yet part of me knew that she was thanking me for doing what her corporation wouldn’t allow her to do.
This set me to wondering why we give to the needy. It is common to see the names of donors plastered on plaques and donor walls. The incentive is to encourage others to give and to honor the givers for their mitzvah. I always assumed that the public honor is also designed to incentivize the donor to give again, but my experience taught me different.
When we give, especially when we appreciate how vital our assistance is, the privilege is its own reward. The honor and glory surely make the donor feel uncomfortable on some level. They agree to it because it encourages others to emulate them, but I think we underestimate the depth of the donor’s humanity when we assume the honor incentivizes the giver.
Perhaps I am a bit naïve to assume that all givers are blessed with basic decency and common humanity. But if this is naïveté, I feel fortunate to have it. I believe that all givers give from a sensitive place and that their souls are touched by the plight of the needy. If their contribution helps, it is its own reward, because giving is a basic human trait and doesn’t need to be feted.
But there might be an entirely different reason for these plaques. A reason we can learn from Jacob.
Jacob and his brother Esau were reunited after a 36-year separation. Jacob had left on bad terms. He had just made off with the blessings that his father had intended for his brother and Esau was livid. Many years later, when Jacob returned home, he sent a generous tribute to Esau, but when they met, Esau refused the gift saying, “I have lots. Brother, keep what is yours.” Jacob replied, “Please, no! If indeed I find favor in your eyes, accept my gift... because seeing you is like seeing an angel in that you accepted me… G-d has favored me and I have everything.”
At first blush we wonder why Esau refused the gift and what Jacob said to change his mind. Esau said, he didn’t need the gift. He has lots. But then he added, keep what is yours. Why did he say that? It sounds patronizing. Jacob replied that he should accept it because Esau is like an angel. Why is being like an angel a reason to accept a gift? And why did Jacob add that he has everything?
Esau understood that there are two basic reasons for offering a gift. One is to help the needy, the other is to gain favor with the wealthy. Every charitable organization operates accordingly. They send gifts to the poor in accordance with their mandate and to the wealthy to incentivize their support. It is ironic to spend the donors’ money to purchase gifts for the donors, but that is how it works.
Esau suspected one of these two motives in Jacob. Jacob either thought Esau was poor and in need of assistance, to which Esau replied, “I have lots,” or to soften Esau up hoping to be forgiven the blessings, to which Esau said, “brother, keep what is yours,” but don’t ask for what is mine.
Jacob’s reply was brilliant. “Please no!” Don’t suspect me of either motive. I know you don’t need help and I certainly am not trying to gain your favor for personal gain. I don’t need to seek your favor because your loving reception told me that you have already forgiven me. It is precisely because you forgave me, precisely because I know you are willing to let go of the past, that you are like an angel to me. I beg you to accept my gift. It is my honor to gift something to an angel like you.
There is a third reason to offer a gift. It is not because the donor needs it, but because we need to offer it. When the Lubavitcher Rebbe OBM was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, Senator Joseph Lieberman declared that the Rebbe did not need this honor, but that we needed to give it to him. It is an honor when someone special accepts our gift.
This was Jacob’s meaning when he said, “If indeed I find favor in your eyes, accept my gift... because seeing your face is like seeing an angel in that you accepted me.” We wouldn’t make a gift to an angel because he is in need nor would we expect anything in return. Angels aren’t empowered to reward us. We would make a gift to an angel (if such gifts were possible) because it is a privilege to do so.
In case Esau didn’t believe that Jacob had no ulterior motive, Jacob added, “G-d has favored me and I have everything.” I don’t need to flatter you or beg anything of you. I have everything I need. All I want is the honor of granting you a gift. Just because it feels right. It feels good. It’s a privilege.
Perhaps this is the true reason we honor our donors. It is not because they need the honor and certainly not because we suspect them of giving for the purpose of receiving honor. We honor them because they are precious to us and it feels good to honor someone special. It is an honor to honor an honorable person.
Do you agree?