Based on Rav Dessler z”tl’s essay on this subject.
We are in the middle of discussing the ultimate attribute of Hashem, that of being the absolute Giver (since He bestows all, and needs and gets nothing in return). And that Avraham Avinu’s descendants were chosen to be Hashem’s People because he taught them derech Hashem, the ways of Hashem, with “giving” being the most outstanding and salient. Michtav Me’Eliyahu explains that man was given this power of being a Giver, along with the antithetical counterpart of the characteristic of being a Taker. And these are the two forces in a person which battle for supremacy, and from which is born his or her capacity for being G-dlike or to be the reverse. Avraham Avinu, the paragon of chessed, was of course the progenitor of the G-dlike Nation.
How, though, does a person give while he inevitably takes? Did Hashem intend for Man to be a pure Giver? Why then did He make the world seemingly a balance of these two forces?
Let us consider a businessman, whose very method of survival depends on give-and-take. (The same is, of course, true of just about any human interaction, financial or otherwise.) But what is his motivator? There are those who see every business dealing as an opportunity for profit, without considering the giving aspect of what they are doing as they supply the buyer with what he or she needs. Thus, there is no thought as to whether the effort and work they have invested bear any relationship to the profits gained. They focus their efforts so as to benefit from their neighbor’s ignorance or failure. All their desires and thoughts are immersed in taking. If they give their customers higher quality goods, it is to double their profits. And from this ruinous competition arises, with everyone striving to take as much as they can from any given situation.
But there can be a person whose giving is his focus. And even his taking stems from his desire to give. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter zt”l teaches a famous interpretation of the possuk, “And Chanoch walked with G-d” and the Chazal on that possuk that says, “Chanoch was a cobbler, and with every stitch that he made, he achieved mystical unions with His Creator.” Surely it does not mean that while he was stitching shoes his mind was on mystical matters! Can a person permissibly divert his attention while engaged in work he was hired to do? Rav Yisroel says that the mystical unions which Chanoch achieved were precisely the concentration he had on each and every stitch to ensure it would be strong and long-lasting, a comfortable shoe for its wearer, giving that wearer the maximum benefit and pleasure. That “union” which Chanoch achieved was union with the attribute of his Creator who selflessly showers His creations with benefit and goodness. He was wholehearted in his desire, his ambition, to attach himself to this attribute of his Creator. He of course would thus never deceive a customer, for his taking would then exceed the value of his giving!
There is a famous story about the Chofetz Chaim, whose wife ran the grocery store they owned. Their goods were of the highest quality and their measures were always correct and even favored the customer slightly, so people crowded into the store. The Chofetz Chaim worried, “How will the other groceries in town make a living?” Therefore, he kept his store open for only two hours a day, and, when that proved to be insufficient to allow other stores to profit as well, closed it entirely. If having a store meant causing harm to others, he wanted no part of it.
What follows as a natural corollary is that giving will give a person a sense of satisfaction and happiness.
We see this in marriage. Hashem’s system is that two people, physiologically and emotionally different, with divergent needs and wants, join together to function as one and actually complement each other. Each one alone is defective, unable alone to carry out his or her objective, and it is only by giving to the other what that person lacks that they both achieve their goals! Thus the bliss of shalom bayis is created and maintained. But if their darker instincts gain the upper hand, and their “taking” side intrudes, then instead of an atmosphere of love and mutual giving, there are demands and pursuits of respective needs; love departs, and family turmoil sadly reigns supreme. The moment they start making demands, as opposed to giving the other spouse pleasure and happiness, is the moment their happiness slowly draws to an end. The marriage may survive — but cheerlessly, even morosely. And if they then oh so foolishly grab more and more greedily for a taste of what they think is a portion of contentment, they spiral downwards into a companionless abyss. (There are also people who do not want to even enter into marriage. And there are those who want as few children as possible, a prevalent phenomenon of our times. Both of these groups are made of people who are unable to shake themselves free from the characteristic of taking, and cannot allow their giving side to function even according to a person’s seemingly “normal” instincts.)
The possuk states, “He who loves money will never be satisfied [and will always crave more].” All physical desires and ambitions share this characteristic; if one is feeding his or her “taking” craving, that person will be eternally hungry (for more), will always be focused on what they do not have (yet), and will in fact search for more and more things to “take” and possess. Thus, the more such a person has, the hungrier he is, as he strains ever more intensely to fulfill the “taking” craving. What he truly yearns for is, of course, beyond his reach. His hunger extends to anything he might possibly need, for years and years to come, for any eventuality or loss. It is a sad life of unhappiness and hunger, for the goal of this person is illusory, and cannot be achieved.
Two areas left to explain are: how these traits manifest themselves in bein odom laMakom; and how a Giver deals with a situation in which he must, inevitably, “take.” Im yirtzeh Hashem, perhaps next week’s column will bring the answers.