I have been seeing a couple that is stuck in a non-nurturing relationship. Each spouse says to me, "My spouse doesn't make me feel like giving. My spouse is selfish. For me to give would feel like a burden; it would feel phony. When my spouse starts giving to me, then I will naturally want to give too. Then, I will match what they give to me."

In this situation, I want to encourage each party to begin giving a lot more, and to do so unilaterally, not as a quid pro quo. There are other situations where I would discourage a spouse from giving more, such as when one spouse is truly selfish, abusive, exploitative, and narcissistic. But that is not the case with this couple. They are both good people, but each came into the marriage having been taken advantage of and wounded in previous relationships.

I would like each party to view themselves as benefiting from giving, not as being burdened and diminished. Torah instructs us that we should give 10% of our resources to others, where we expect no return and where the person has done nothing to earn the gift. That is known as "tzedakah." Most importantly, Torah says that we do not need to feel diminished at all by doing so, but rather we can feel "rich," fulfilled and joyful.

Is this position realistic, practical or is it a formula for prolonging abuse?

Obviously, we can not feel generously charitable if we are frightened or believe that our giving was coerced or manipulated from us. We need to be in a situation where we have freely chosen to give.

We all have within us a destructive force that distorts or colors our thoughts and our perception of reality. On such destructive thought is: "If I give now to someone who isn't giving back to me, I am a fool, a loser, and an abused person." Torah says: "That view is false. Yes, you are a fool, a loser, and an abused person if most of the time you give to someone who doesn't give back. But you need to learn that at least 10% of the time you can give tzedakah and give it happily."

There are a number of ways that Torah makes this point. I would like to share one such way that I particularly enjoy.

The language of a culture tells you a great deal about the values and perceptions of that culture. In some academic disciplines this relationship is referred to as "the Whorfian hypothesis."1

More specifically, concerning our issue of giving, both Hebrew and Yiddish have a linguistic oddity that concerns giving.

On Saturday nights, many Jews recite a set of blessings that include the verse: "You will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow" (Deuteronomy 15:6). It is interesting that, in the original Hebrew text, the verb root for "to lend" is that same as the verb root for "to borrow." This verb, "avat," means one thing and also means its opposite.2

This is not the case in English, where we do not have a single verb that means both borrow and lend.3

What makes this linguistic oddity even more intriguing is that it also occurs in Yiddish. The verb "borgen" in Yiddish can mean either to borrow or to lend.4 And although Yiddish is closely related to German, nonetheless, this oddity does not occur in German, which has separate verbs for "to borrow" (borgen or leihnen) and for "to lend" (verleihnen).

What message is embedded in this linguistic oddity?

Let me answer that question by bringing in one additional linguistic idiosyncrasy.

The Hebrew word "v'natnu," meaning "and they shall give," appears frequently in the Bible. The word is a palindrome, that is, it reads the same whether you read it from left to right or from right to left. In English, for example, the word "level" is a palindrome.

Our sages interpret this biblical palindrome as a promise from G‑d: "Be assured that if you step forward generously to give, rewards will come back to you. If you lend generously to others, G‑d will see to it that either you do not need to borrow, or that when you need to borrow, you will receive your loan."

For this process to work in your marriage, your spouse must see that your gift was freely given, not that they pressured you into it; further, it must be given without a bill being attached; it wasn't a trade or a sale, it was a gift. It is best if the gift was not at all expected and if you were not there waiting to be thanked.

A very simple example: A wife is rushing out of the house on a Sunday morning and she knocks over a small bookcase in the kitchen filled with her cookbooks. She yells out to her husband, "I don't have time to deal with the mess. I'll do it when I get back." She knows that her husband is also under time pressure that morning, and she accepts that fixing the mess that she created with her books is her responsibility.

How might the husband react? Let us assume that he is bothered that his wife is not heavily invested in keeping a very neat house. He feels she cares more about her career, or interacting with the children, than fulfilling his desire for a beautifully-kept house. He could be resentful.

Nonetheless, in my best scenario, he says to himself, "this is an opportunity; I can be genuinely giving and generous; I don't have to be hooked by anger; I don't like how I feel after I am angry. Hey, so my wife is a bit of a slob, or maybe I'm a bit of a neat-freak... but she is wonderful in many other ways; this is an opportunity for me to practice tzedakah." The husband takes the time to fix the problem. The wife returns home, while the husband is still out of the house, and finds everything in order. She can't even reach her husband to thank him right away.

Can you take it upon yourself to spend 10% of your resources attempting to touch your spouse's heart as a freebie? Can you enjoy the process? Watch and see what happens in return.