Learning How to Fly: When Giving is Taking
Adapted by Braha Bender
Picture a bird in a gilded cage. Next to her lies a delicious hunk of bread. The bird may nibble on the bread, and even grasp it in her talons. However, she is not free to pick up the hunk of bread and fly away with it to wherever she pleases. Her ownership of the bread ends at the bars of her small, gilded cage.
So is the wealth of the miser. His stinginess is a gilded cage. It keeps his money - and his freedom - locked away in a bank. Miserliness does not allow him to use the money to experience any of the joys of life. Have you ever had money stuck in the bank? Remember the frustration? If you can’t use it, do you truly own it? If it doesn’t express your will, is it truly yours?
The only money you truly own is the money you use to express your truest will, your spiritual identity. Using your possessions to actualize your values makes those possessions your own in the deepest sense. For example, the money you give to tzedaka is yours for eternity. The money you use to buy a gift for your spouse creates something that will last forever. The moment you decide to spend money to do a mitzvah is the moment you take possession of your wealth.
That explains why, when God commands the Jewish People to donate some of their possessions towards the construction and maintenance of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), He does not command them to give. He commands them to take.
Parashas Teruma begins with, “Take for Me a portion...” (Exodus 25:2) Parashas Tetzaveh repeats, “Take...pure olive oil” (ibid 27:20)
When giving actualizes your values, then giving is really taking - taking your future in your hands, taking the opportunity, taking a moment in time and making it yours. Mere physical possessions are a cheap currency with which to acquire such priceless commodities as self-actualization and pieces of spiritual fulfilment that will last for eternity. Gold poured from the coffers of the Jewish People as they gave and gave to the Mishkan, but the ones they gave the most to were themselves.
Every mitzvah can be seen in this light. On the one hand, mitzvos are all about creating relationships, and relationships are about giving. When we pay attention to the preferences of others - either other people or the great Other in our lives, the Almighty - we come close to them. Mitzvos also help us create a relationship with ourselves: the soul must pay attention to the needs of the body, and the body must pay attention to the needs of the soul. Living a mitzvah lifestyle requires that we focus on giving.
On the other hand, by building relationships with ourselves, with others, and with God, we receive the greatest gifts life has to offer: love, joy, meaning, fulfilment, and so much more.
So when we give to others, are we giving or are we taking? The true answer is, both. And any fool could tell you that when you invest a small amount of money in a business to reap much greater returns, you are taking back more than you give.
But it doesn’t feel like taking when we pull out our wallets and write a check for tzedaka, or schlep to the store to pick up that box of cereal our husband or wife asked us for. It feels difficult. When you feel this difficulty, you stand at a crossroads facing two paths. One path is easy travelling for the first few meters, but becomes brambles and thorns after the initial, easy section. The second path begins in brambles and thorns but turns into consistently smooth, beautiful walking a short way in.
We often see evil people succeeding in this world and ask ourselves, “If they’ve made it, then why am I trying so hard to be a nice guy?” We all know the answer, though. They chose the path that looks easy at first, but turns out to be filled with brambles and thorns. Living with Torah values may seem more difficult at first, but soon proves to be a pleasant journey filled with beauty, a beauty that lasts for eternity.
Get out of the gilded cage and be a giver. You will lose nothing by extending yourself for God and for other people. Your time will be well invested. Your money will be well spent. Your life will be well lived. It may seem difficult at first, but every bird deserves to learn how to fly.