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GIVE AND TAKE

by Michael Alterman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

This week we come to the end of the Torah's account of the life of our great forefather Abraham. The sages teach that if we had to select one character trait which Abraham personified most fully, it would be the attribute of chesed, loving kindness towards those around him.

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This week we come to the end of the Torah's account of the life of our great forefather Abraham. The sages teach that if we had to select one character trait which Abraham personified most fully, it would be the attribute of chesed, loving kindness towards those around him. Walking in the path of Hashem who created an entire world for the purpose of doing good for his creations, Abraham continually struggled to improve and refine his performance of kindness, going through great pains as he reached for every opportunity to render good on others. Through their dedicated efforts, our forefathers implanted into the Jewish people their superior character traits. Thanks to Abraham, the raw materials required to become a person of chesed are within each of us, just waiting to be brought out into the open. How can we convert this great potential into reality?

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a leading 20th century Jewish thinker in England and Israel, writes that the world is comprised of two general categories of people: the givers and the takers. Someone who is a " ;giver" looks into every life situation and tries to determine how he can best contribute to the well-being and happiness of another person, without setting his focus on what he will receive in return. His act of giving flows from the pure goodness in his heart. Even when he receives from others, his immediate response is one of overwhelming gratitude, appreciation, and a desire to repay. The perfected world is one in which everyone seeks to benefit his fellow man, and a society of givers lives in the ultimate happiness and tranquillity.

The "taker", on the other hand, approaches every scenario with his eyes wide open to best take advantage of the people around him and grab the most for himself. Deception and trickery are his tools, and he is always looking to cut a deal and to possess. Even when he appears to be giving to others, his actions are tainted by an ulterior motive, transforming his "giving" into a perversion. If provided the opportunity, he would love to receive everything for free. The taker's constant selfishness only leads to increased desires, jealousy, and the futile chasing after fleeting pleasures. A world of takers leads only to destruction.

Rabbi Dessler quotes the following fascinating Midrash to illustrate the difference between these two diametrically opposed personalities: The travels of Alexander of Macedonia, the world conqueror, once brought him to the kingdom of Cassia where he had the occasion to witness the local king adjudicate a particular court case. Two men entered the court. One had bought a piece of wasteland from his neighbor and had subsequently found a magnificent treasure buried in it. The buyer claimed that he had intended to purchase only land and not its contents; therefore the treasure should be returned to the seller. The seller on the other hand argued that he had sold the land complete with everything that it contained, and the treasure belonged to the gentlemen who had bought the land. The king turned to each man an d asked them whether they had sons or daughters. When he discovered that one had a son and the other a daughter, the king ruled that the children should marry and the treasure should be bestowed upon the couple.

Upon seeing Alexander's astonishment at the case and the outcome, the king of Cassia asked him how he would have judged such a case. Alexander replied, "I would have put both men to death and confiscated the treasure for myself." The king of Cassia asked Alexander if the sun shines in his country, to which he responded yes. He then asked if he has animals in his land; once again Alexander answered in the affirmative. The king of Cassia declared, "If you have rain and sunshine it is not in your merit; it is in the merit of the animals, as the verse says, 'Hashem saves Man and beast' - Man in the merit of beast."

This unbelievable Midrash demonstrates the world of difference that a change of perspective can make on a person. Most of us probably find ourselves somewhere in between the two extreme categories of "givers" and "takers". Trying to shift our outlook closer to that of the giver may very well be the key to bringing out the hidden trait of chesed from within us. At the same time, we will certainly become happier and more fulfilled people.

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Michael Alterman, who hails from Atlanta, is enrolled in a joint program with Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore.

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