Givers and Takers

“And what,” asked Rabbi Zusha, “can I learn from a thief?”

Pinhas Sadeh, Jewish Folktales



Many of us describe the polarities of the human personality in unadorned terms. In this world, there are givers, and there are takers. It’s as simple and as complex as that…until, that is, Adam Grant threw in a new category in his book, Give and Take, a study of success. Givers are those of us who love sharing contacts, presents, advice, ideas and time. We expect little in return - and even that can be expecting too much. Those of us who are takers want to ensure that we get as much as we possibly can from every opportunity and situation, even and often at the expense of others. Grant does not make a judgment about either category. He describes attitudes and approaches to the world. “If you’re a taker, you help others strategically, when the benefits to you outweigh the personal costs.” Givers, he says, use a different cost-benefit analysis: “you help whenever the benefits to others exceed the personal costs.”


Grant says that in the workplace, this formula may be too simple since few of us are pure givers or pure takers. He offers a third style: matchers. These are individuals who try to balance getting and giving, operating on the principle of fairness, protecting themselves by seeking and expecting reciprocity and exchange of favors. We all want to think of ourselves as givers, but what do others think of us?


Jumping backwards from 2013 to the eighteenth century, we encounter Rabbi Zusha of Hanipol (1718-1800). He is one of the heroes of Hasidic lore, most known for the rebuke he suffered in the afterlife. God asked him - not why he did not live up to the image of Abraham or Moses - but why he did not live up to the image of Zusha. He was a saintly disciple of Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezritch. As told in Jewish Folktales, he once asked his teacher the secret of worshipping God. Rabbi Dov Baer claimed that Zusha could learn to pray from any child or even from a thief.


“Why, how can I learn it from a child?” asked Zusha.


The rabbi told him he could learn prayer from a child in three different ways:

1) A child needs no reason to be happy.

2) A child should always keep busy.

3) When a child wants something, he screams until he gets it.


Rabbi Zusha then wanted to know how he could learn to pray from a thief. To this Rabbi Dov Baer told him that he could learn this from seven different behaviors of thieves:

1)    Apply yourself by night and not just by day.

2)    Try again if at first you don’t succeed.

3)    Love your comrades.

4)    Be ready to risk your life, even for a small thing.

5)    Attach little value to what you have.

6)    Do not be put off by hardship and blows.

7)    Be glad you are what you are instead of wanting to be something else.


It is not that the holy rabbi busied himself studying the behavior of children and thieves but was, perhaps, advising those of us who struggle in prayer to make the whole thing simpler. Prayer should emerge out of happiness, busy-ness and – at times – through pain. Smiling, pausing when life seems overly hectic, and even screaming can be ways that we communicate with God. The thief – an overt criminal – can also teach us about praying: the discipline of the night shift, the willingness to take risks, the repeated attempts to be successful.


When we jump back to 2103, it’s easy to see the child as a giver and the thief as a taker. But again, it’s not that simple. Neither is prayer. In the spiritual realm, many of us pray as takers even though we look like givers. We are giving God our gratitude, our souls, our intention, our despair, and our time in prayer. But in reality, we are either takers or matchers. We think that if we put in the time, we will get a payback or that our prayers are some kind of insurance policy against future calamities. In other words, our relationship with God is not all that different than our relationships with each other.


So who are you with others: a giver, a taker or a matcher? A child or a thief?


And who are you in your relationship with God?


Shabbat Shalom