Giving and Taking
One much ignored yet fundamental way of breaking down human behaviour is in terms of giving and taking. Almost all human behaviour can be identified with these two actions, though admittedly, it is not always clear with which one. Considering the pervasive presence of giving and taking in our lives, it would be foolish to ignore a thorough exploration of the roles of these two capacities.
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, knowledgeable in both Lithuanian and Chassidic Torah traditions, asserts: ‘taking is the source of all evil and giving is the source of all good.’ His statement needs clarification because, at first glance, it appears impossible to live by – how can one survive without ever taking?
Observe an evil act carefully and indeed you will find that without exception it involves taking, though not always conspicuously. Murder, for instance, involves taking a life; robbery involves taking by force; slander constitutes taking a reputation; fraud entails taking through deceit; and let us not forget bribery: taking by giving.
The taking aspect of an evil act may be difficult to identify for several reasons:
a) The object taken for the self may not coincide with what is being taken away from the other. For example, though murder involves taking away another’s life, it does not involve the murderer gaining a life. Rather, the murderer gratifies his need to take revenge, eliminates a witness for another crime he committed, etc.
b) The object being taken may be abstract in nature, as in the case of slander, where one is not taking jewellery or any other tangible object, but someone’s reputation.
c) Sometimes an act of giving is used to do the taking, thereby obscuring the true motivating drive, as in the case of bribery.
d) Taking is normally associated with drawing something toward the self whereas the opposite movement is often exhibited in evil acts. In the case of violence, for example, the act involves outwardly directed energy from the perpetrator toward the victim.
In reference to the last reason bare in mind that whenever a person takes an ordinary physical object there are two movements: the outstretching of the arm toward the object, and the drawing of the object toward the self; the former being a means to the latter. Similarly, in the case of a violent act, the outward bound expression is merely a means for an individual to draw something toward himself, be it a sense of control over the other, a desire to diminish the other’s well being, or simply, the pleasure of fighting.
In contrast, giving is behind all good. This is, in essence, because giving allows us to emulate, and in fact channel, G-dliness, the ultimate good. But to understand this we must preface with an esoteric truth concerning the creation of the world.
If G-d is absolutely perfect, lacking nothing, what motivates G-d to create the world? After all there is nothing that we can add to His perfect being. Indeed, G-d does not create the world for His own benefit, rather, the act of creation is one of pure altruism; G-d creates the world to benefit us. Thus, perpetually pulsating through the universe is divine loving kindness, creating and sustaining every single thing. King David makes reference to this in Psalms when he declares, “Kindness will build the world”.
When a person exercises his capacity to give, he becomes a channel for divine kindness, manifesting it within the world. This is the meaning of the verse, “G-d created man in His image”: Just as G-d gives purely for the sake of benefiting a recipient, man is capable of doing so as well. And when he does, he reveals the divine within himself.
Giving and taking, based on the discussion until now, appear to be polar opposites - taking being evil and giving being good- and somewhat compartmentalized, in reality however, they function together. In fact, there exists an entire scale of interaction between the two capacities. At the left most of the scale we have pure taking, at the right most, pure giving. Moving toward the middle, the two capacities become increasingly intertwined and difficult to separate. Let us explore this scale in detail.
Close to the left extreme we have people who use giving to facilitate taking. Consider, for example, the delicatessen that has a stand on the street offering free samples of food. The owner is not attempting to feed the poor; he has profit in mind. He believes that through giving he will take much more than what he has given away, for the samples are a means of inviting people into the store to purchase items. Similarly, the individual who compliments people in order to win their friendship or approval is giving in order to take.
To gauge whether a person is giving in order to take one has to determine whether they would still be motivated to give in the absence of the personal benefit involved. Would the delicatessen owner still hand out free samples if he was certain that no one would enter the store? Would the lonely person still compliment others if he secured their friendship and approval? If the answer to these questions is yes then the act does not fall into the giving for the sake of taking category. But if the answer is no, revealing that the giving is dependent upon the taking, then the act does fall into that category.
In the middle are the individuals who are confused as to whether they are giving or taking at any given moment. The two motivations both express themselves, and they are unsure which is driving their behaviour. When helping a friend he is unsure whether he is motivated by his giving capacity, in that he genuinely wants to benefit his friend, or whether he is motivated by the need to take something via the act of helping, such as a sense of greater closeness to the friend, the promise of reciprocation, etc. Such a person is confused as to what really drives him because he feels both his giving and taking tendencies quite strongly.
Shifting to the near right, we have the individuals that have developed their capacity to give to the extent that it is clear to them that they are motivated by the capacity to give. However, the faculty of taking has not been subsumed within the faculty of giving and still expresses itself independently even when the person is performing an act of altruistic giving.
This means that while teaching, for example, though motivated strictly by the desire to enlighten the student, the teacher’s taking side may still seize the opportunity to derive a sense of self satisfaction, or worse arrogance from the act. However, not only is such taking not motivating the act of giving, but the taking is occurring automatically, without the individual’s consent.
On the middle left are the individuals who discern that they are motivated much of the time by taking. However even when they take, their giving side is expressive that they genuinely give during an act of taking. When, for instance, serving a customer - which he is involved in for the sake of personal gain - he may be genuinely polite to the customer, and throw in an extra item, not because he wants to ensure the continued patronage of the customer but because he wants the customer to be happy.
The giving/taking continuum
Taking Giving is Giving is secondary Confusion/ Taking is Secondary Taking is Giving
Subsumed to taking Alternation to giving subsumed
within taking within giving
With this teaching in mind it becomes clear that taking is not only not necessarily evil, but an enhancer of the giving process; taking can be a facilitator of the ultimate good in a very direct way. If so, what does Rabbi Dessler mean when he states that taking is the root of all evil?
The idea is not that every act of taking is evil per se but that if taking is not subordinate to giving it can degenerate into evil behaviour, examples of which were given above. In other words, there is no potential for evil to develop out of pure giving, but in potential it can develop out of taking.
Thus his statement serves as a warning for people who start to get carried away with the act of taking in permitted matters such as eating, purchasing of furniture, holidaying, money making through legitimate means, etc, purely for the sake of the personal benefit that each activity provides. For through this the taking side strengthens, suppressing the giving side, then one may indeed come to behave immorally in order to increase wealth and comfort.
It is crucial to qualify the definition of giving in this model. People frequently associated giving with the emotion of love, and as stated in the chapter on love, there is truth to this belief. However, giving is not dependent on the feeling of love; one can exercise giving regardless of how one feels. True giving stems from the conscious decision to do what is right, and to sacrifice selfish interests which stand in the way. Such behaviour certainly generates love, the highest forms of love, but is itself beyond love.
Giving is associated with the mind more than with the heart; it originates in the mind, in a mental decision to do what is right, but once activated is also felt in the heart. Giving thus allows us to continue benefiting others even when the love in our heart is to weak to motivate us to do so- if only if it is the right thing to do.
Furthermore, giving does not necessarily involve a physical act of sharing an object with someone else. Rather, giving is the intention behind the action. One can ‘give’ by withholding an object from someone, or even by being harsh toward them - if one genuinely believes that doing so will benefit that person. Thus, the parent who refuses to allow his child to stay up late so that he should not be tired the next day at school is still giving to the child even though he is not giving the child what he wants. Similarly, one who declines giving money to a particular charity because he has already committed his money to another charity which he believes more worthwhile, is still giving, because he withholds from one charity in order to continue giving to the charity to which he has prior commitments.
Clearly, giving does not simply mean giving people what they want, for that can result in harm to the recipient, to oneself, or to a third party. Rather, giving must be guided by wisdom. Many people complain that they have been burnt on account of giving. Here are a few examples which I have personally heard: “I lent money to a friend who never repaid the loan. This left me in a difficult situation and ruined our friendship. Since then I don’t lend money to people anymore.” Another complained, “When I used to focus on giving, people would take advantage of me, always asking me for help knowing that I would be obliging – eventually I started to feel resentful toward these people”. “I would stay out of the house helping others to the extent that I neglected my own family.” Yet another told me, “My mother is so giving that she tries to do everything for me. Even though I’m a married woman my mother lovingly attempts to control my life. This has taken a terrible toll on my relationship with my husband.”
In all of these instances the people held giving responsible for the various problems that ensued. In some of the cases, individuals even developed distaste for giving and shifted to a more selfish approach to life. The truth, however, is not with giving per se but with a lack of wisdom. In each case the ‘giver’ lacked wisdom and thus gave in an inappropriate way. In the case of the loan, for example, a true giving consciousness would have considered the risks involved in lending the particular individual money, and perhaps would have decided not to give for the long term good for everyone.
Furthermore, it is highly likely that many of these individuals were not giving but actually taking. For instance the mother who smothers her daughter with love may feel guilty if she doesn’t do so, so she gives excessively to avoid feeling guilty and to have a positive image of herself as a good mother – she is thus focusing more on her own needs than on her daughter’s which accounts for her inability to detect how much damage she is actually causing her daughter through her kindness. She is taking rather than giving. It is easy to confuse the two.
This model also provides us with clear direction as to where we should be travelling on our spiritual journey, and how to monitor our progress. What has not been clarified, however, is how to progress along the scale.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad – Lubavitch movement provides a profound analogy for spiritual growth. To purify gold one places it into a furnace at a high temperature. The impurities then surface and one can remove them. However, more subtle impurities may not have become visible, and to expose them one must return the gold into the furnace at an even higher temperature. And so the process continues, returning the gold to the furnace again and again at increasingly higher temperatures until the most subtle impurities are removed and the gold is completely purified.
In terms of spiritual growth, our soul is the gold that needs purification. We are tainted by selfish urges, negative feelings of envy, anger, arrogance, etc, which are all extensions of our taking side. When we practice acts of giving and thereby strengthen that capacity, a contrast is produced between the goodness of giving and the selfishness and ugliness of taking. We are then motivated to eliminate that ugliness from ourselves by limiting the amount, or the manner, in which our taking expresses itself. On account of this slight self refinement we are more open to sensing the goodness of giving. And through the continued practice of giving, more subtle negativity within our taking side becomes apparent. We are then motivated to eliminate that negativity as well. And so the cycle continues: we are then all the more sensitive to goodness, and subsequently, via contrast, also more aware of ever subtle forms of negativity within ourselves. The furnace is becoming hotter and hotter and ever subtle impurities are surfacing and being removed.
But let us glimpse what would result if, through this process, one reached the right extreme of the scale; has anybody ever reached such an enlightened state to describe it?
In reference to Chanoch who lived ten generations after Adam, the first man, the verse states, “Chanoch walked with G-d and was no more, for G-d had taken him”. This verse seems rather peculiar. Where is G-d walking to, that Chanoch was able to walk with Him. Does G-d not fill all space? It would be absurd to imagine Him moving from one place to another. Furthermore, why would G-d take Chanoch – an act which appears retributive - if Chanoch walked with Him – implying virtuous behaviour? And finally, where did Chanoch vanish to?
The commentators explain that Chanoch was a cobbler, and with every stitch that he would make in the shoes he would achieve mystical union between G-d and creation. How did Chanoch achieve this sublime fete through mere shoe repair? When Chanoch was making a pair of shoes for a customer, he focused on producing the highest quality shoe that would provide maximum benefit to the customer. He did not do this to win more clients or for an increase in pay, but purely to benefit the customer. Thus during his seemingly mundane work he exercised giving to the fullest extent. As mentioned earlier, it is giving that allows us to serve as a medium for divine love and kindness manifesting it within the world. And this was the mystical union that he attained between G-d and creation: by giving, he channelled divine kindness openly to another human being, linking the human with G-d.
And this is the deeper meaning of Chanoch walking with G-d. G-d’s kindness is constantly flowing into the world and sustaining it. Through constant acts of giving Chanoch indeed travelled with G-d - with the flow of Divine Kindness that continually descend from the Infinite source into the finite world.
Chanoch developed his giving capacity to such an extent that his taking side was subsumed within his giving side. The taking aspect is related to the human ego, the sense of rigidity and separateness from G-d. After all when we take something, we take it to ourselves. But since Chanoch was successful at absorbing his taking aspect into the giving aspect, his egotism disappeared – hence Chanoch was no more, for G-d had taken him.
Abraham was also known to have attained spiritual enlightenment. Our sages bring proof that he completely transcended evil from the fact that the verse states, “And G-d blessed Abraham ‘BaKol’ [with everything]”.
How does G-d blessing Abraham with ‘everything’ imply that Abraham transcended his inclination to do evil?
Evil can only attach itself to a person that feels lack, and desires things for himself. Because such a person expresses desire to gratify himself, if he encounters an illicit way of doing, he may be enticed to pursue it. The individual who feels content and satiated, however, has no desire to take things from the world to benefit himself, he is thus not susceptible to the influences of evil.
If we were to interpret the verse, “G-d blessed Abraham with everything” literally, it would imply with that G-d provided him with everything in the world. This would be hard to conceive. Rather, ‘everything’ means with a sense that he has everything - a feeling of serene contentment.
But how did Abraham attain this state? The sense of lack and deficiency stems from the physical body, for the body which constantly requires support for its continued existence and undergoes aging and atrophy. The Divine, however, is infinite and eternal, lacking nothing. Thus the more Divine kindness flows into a person, the more strongly they will feel wholeness themselves. Since Abraham spent his life exercising giving, he drew an abundance of Divine kindness into himself until he felt ‘everything’, and as a result, transcended his inclination toward evil.