Get on line. Someone is giving out presents. The verse from Proverbs emphasizes gift-giving in the most superficial relationships. We ask for favors from people who are more powerful than we are. We wait for hand-outs from people who give gifts. We call these gift-givers friends, whether the gift is a physical object or a conferred status as a result of the friendship. But it's hardly a real friendship.
French sociologist Marcel Mauss wrote one of the early and influential books on gift-giving in 1924 and claims that gift economies are marked by three related obligations: the obligation to give, to accept and to reciprocate. These obligations which drive the gift-giving cycle are typical in small, tight-knit groups like families and communities. Those intrigued by this topic might appreciate Lewis Hyde's more recent book, The Gift. In our verse from Proverbs, receiving alone will not create a bond. There has to be reciprocity for both sides to feel valued and equal partners.
Amanda Owen has a saying: "Receive everything." Owen wrote two books on the subject, The Power of Receiving and Born to Receive after observing how many clients in her counseling practice were giving a great deal but receiving much less in their relationships. She herself was victim of the same problem - a dilemma for which she blames herself: ". . . I also created relationships in which I gave much more than I got back and that left me feeling exhausted, resentful, and distressed. . . . The more I thought about receiving, the more I wondered why we are taught to denigrate 50 percent of every transaction." Our society praises giving but denigrates receiving because it seems selfish. But without healthy reciprocity we don't learn how to receive praise, gifts and favors with grace and maturity.
When we are always giving and block ways for people to give back, we also minimize the capacity of others to give back. "Create a pathway for those you help to give back," she advised. Owen claims that this not only makes others feel like equals but also minimizes the stress we feel when giving-taking relationships are uneven: "Once you get used to people giving to you as much as you give to them and receive all of the benefits of a less stressful life, you will not consider putting yourself last."
This approach explains a remarkable Talmudic passage that appears in this past week's study cycle. A husband, in ancient Jewish law, has the right to nullify his wife's vows if she commits to something that would negatively impact him, herself or their marriage. He cannot, however, prevent her from doing an action that she perceives as suffering. A Talmudic sage then determines what suffering in this context means through an unusual interpretation of a biblical verse. "Rabbi Meir would say, what is the meaning of '...the living should take this to heart' (Ecclesiastes 7:2)? This means that one who eulogizes others when they die will in turn be eulogized when he himself dies; one who weeps for others will be wept for when he himself passes away; and one who buries others will himself be buried upon his passing," [BT Nedarim 83b].
The entire verse from Ecclesiastes is one we may recognize from the title of an Edith Wharton novel. "It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of mirth, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart." Visiting mourners puts life in perspective and helps us appreciate what we have. The Talmudic reading is that a man cannot prevent his wife from visiting mourners because it may cause her anxiety. She will fear that if she does not console mourners, no one will be there for her when she needs consolation. Being part of a community is recognizing that reciprocity matters. You can't expect the benefits of the community if you don't invest in it yourself.
A friend who volunteers in a Jewish home for seniors said that she goes weekly because one day she may be in the same position and wants to know that there will be people who will visit her. Initially, I thought this was odd, maybe even a selfish rather than selfless reason for volunteering. But then I came to understand that this friend deeply believes in the power of community and was - without guarantees - paying her moral down-payment on the future.
As we approach the High Holiday season, it's a good time to think about volunteering for the new year and investing in a community that is invested in us.