Shaya Cohen -


Giving For the Sake of the Greater Good

The power of a Twitter feed is the number of followers. We see this across the world; influencers and stars are powerful because of the number of people who follow them. In the civil service, the more underlings one has, the more powerful that person is known to be.

But what if we were to turn this on its head? What if what really matters is the goodwill that can be created between people because we are kind and thoughtful, considerate about the needs of others?

The former – the Twitter follower count – is the measurement of the success of a mass movement, or even of a religion. The more Muslims there are, the stronger Islam is seen to be. A rap star is at least partially judged by the size of his entourage.

But the latter, where goodwill is the metric, is much more beautiful because it is not about the person. It is, instead, about the kindness invested in others, the ideas that are shared that might help someone else.

I am hardly the first person to suggest there is a shallowness to the modern social media landscape. But I am suggesting more than merely this. Perhaps the solution to this problem comes through the belief that if we invest in other people, then that is better than the person being dependent on us. Instead of a top-down dependency, the best society has people able to care for themselves: if you like, more people who have learned how to fish, instead of depending on fish from others.

The challenge is that we humans instinctively sense that being altruistic is not usually in our self-interest. Few people, in their guts, believe in a rising tide. Instead, they cling to the idea that “winning” means that one has achieved because one has trodden on others, clawing our way to the top of the heap. This is a dog-eat-dog view of things, and it is not wrong specifically – but it is also clearly not good. In the same way that capitalism should always be governed or bounded by one’s morality and an ethical code.

But we are not meant to be animals, striving to be the king of the jungle. We are instead supposed to build and grow ourselves as well as others. This is not an anti-competitive stance, but it clearly is supposed to moderate our avarice and turn it into something that benefits all the players.

If a fellow Hebrew man—or woman—is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free. When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed.

Someone spent time serving us – and we are bound to acknowledge that service with an extra gift. Not because it is in our economic interest, but because G-d told us to do so. Why? Because investing in relationships, in other people, is holy work.

In the Torah we even have a counterexample: Jacob works for 20 years, and, as he tells Laban, “Had not the God of my father’s [house]—the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac—been with me, you would have sent me away empty-handed.”

It is this phrase, empty-handed, reikam, that makes this case for us. Laban is the example, in every respect, of how not to behave. Lavan’s behavior teaches us not to be nasty, not to claim ownership of things that are not ours, not try to undermine other people or their marriages… basically to not manipulate others for our own ends and aggrandizement. And as we learn from the use of the word reikam here and elsewhere in the text, that when someone works for you, you owe them something even as they are leaving.

And so we see it in the rest of the Torah. When we serve Egypt, G-d makes sure that we do not leave empty-handed:

And I will dispose the Egyptians favorably toward this people, so that when you go, you will not go away empty-handed.

Similarly, when G-d invests in our creativity, by blessing our crops and our flocks (essentially serving us!), the Torah tells us:

Three times a year—on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Booths—all your males shall appear before your G-d in the place that [God] will choose. They shall not appear before G-d empty-handed.

You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread—eating unleavened bread for seven days as I have commanded you—at the set time in the month of Aviv, for in it you went forth from Egypt; and none shall appear before Me empty-handed;

Every first issue of the womb is Mine, from all your livestock that drop a male as firstling, whether cattle or sheep. … And you must redeem every male first-born among your children. None shall appear before Me empty-handed.

When we enjoy harvests and new life, we are to come to Jerusalem with bounty, sharing the blessings with G-d in very much the same way that we reward a servant who has helped us prosper.  

Of course, G-d is not hungry. And even though we come to Jerusalem with goodies, we – not G-d – are the consumers of those goodies. The token – the mere thought of a gift – still matters. G-d is trying to teach us to think in terms of reciprocal benefit and goodwill instead of power hierarchies. By sharing with G-d, we learn to share with those around us as well. G-d thus asks us to behave with our servants the same way we behave toward Him.

The moral of the story is simple enough: a core part of a holy relationship is in sharing our blessings, in always showing reciprocal gratitude even after we have already met our contracted obligations. This is a core part of realizing that a holy society is a rising tide, a growing pie. Only the small-minded, the Labans among us, insist on every “win” for the victor coming with a matching “loss” for the loser.

Reagan used to have a sign over his desk: “There is no limit to what can be achieved if you do not care who gets the credit.” Indeed, claiming credit is for the petty and insecure. Joy shared is doubled, so when we have something good, we are told to share it, to never be empty-handed.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]

Comments are welcome!

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