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Healthy Give and Take

Healthy Give and Take

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Gregarious as Americans usually are, in my time there I was struck by the social remove that prevailed on the New York public transport system. Rather than use their time to meet and make friends, the Yanks go out of their way to avoid making eye contact with strangers. Having grown up in Australia where it is acceptable, if not encouraged, for complete strangers to strike up conversation while waiting in line at the ATM, it took some time to acclimatise to the different social conventions.

One time on the subway, studiously studying the advertisements and not the people, my attention was forcibly dragged to a tall young man loudly haranguing the crowd. He was a representative of a local homeless shelter collecting for his cause. Buskers and beggars are a common sight in any metropolis, however it was his method of soliciting that captured my interest.

My attention was dragged to a young man loudly haranguing the crowdHe held two backpacks, one full of sandwiches and the other money. After introducing himself he strolled down the aisle offering the patrons the choice between helping themselves to a sandwich or contributing money to the cause. "If you have, please give. If you need, please take."

Sure, it was a shtick, a method of pointing out the subtle line that hovers between dependency and patronage, and it definitely upped his take. However it got me thinking; to my mind the social worker had encapsulated the traditional Jewish attitude to tzedakah (charity). If you have, you give; it's not yours, it was a gift from G‑d for you to do good with. And if you need, taking is no source of shame; it's just G‑d's way of redressing the balance.

Taking from others when one doesn't need, that is reprehensible. Not giving when one can afford to, that is disgraceful. But there is no shame in accepting from others, secure in the knowledge that if and when your aid is needed, you too will contribute whatever is necessary, whatever you can. Wealth and poverty are temporary conditions, mentcshlichkeit and faith are forever.

When the Torah details the collection made to build and support the Tabernacle. G‑d states "Take for Me an offering."1 You'd think He would say "give an offering" not "take," except the verse is pointing out that sometimes taking is also giving.

A while back I spoke to someone about sending his children to a Jewish school. There are generous scholarships on offer for kids transferring from the public system, but he refused. He didn't want to feel beholden to anyone.

To my mind his scruples were misplaced. True, if one looks at the system in miniature, the other guy is giving charity and you're receiving. Well, no one wants to feel like a beggar. But in truth, the ones giving are just fulfilling G‑d's will by allocating His reserves to whomsoever G‑d wishes, and the recipient is also fulfilling G‑d's desire, by directing it towards the proper outcome.

The recipient is fulfilling G‑d's desire by directing the money towards the proper outcome.My friend's desire to pay his way or not at all might make sense when holding off on purchasing a boat or a holiday home, but some things are not luxuries, they're necessities of life. His children were missing out on a Jewish education while he dithered with his principles.

And do you think the guy writing the check is not beholden to others? Did he not receive from others; whether a bequest from his folks, the benefit of a good education, luck, superior genes, being in the right place at the right time, whatever. And if you refuse to accept the loan, the gift, call it whatever you like, by the time you can afford to pay your way, are you positive that it won't be too late?

In G‑d's system, where everything is accounted for, and everything ultimately adds up, sometimes taking is truly giving

Footnotes
Rabbi Elisha Greenbaum is spiritual leader of Moorabbin Hebrew Congregation and co-director of L’Chaim Chabad in Moorabbin, Victoria, Australia.
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