Shabbat VaYishlakh: How To Give

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר עֵשָׂ֖ו יֶשׁ־לִ֣י רָ֑ב אָחִ֕י יְהִ֥י לְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁר־לָֽךְ׃

Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.”

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֗ב אַל־נָא֙ אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ וְלָקַחְתָּ֥ מִנְחָתִ֖י מִיָּדִ֑י כִּ֣י עַל־כֵּ֞ן רָאִ֣יתִי פָנֶ֗יךָ כִּרְאֹ֛ת פְּנֵ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים וַתִּרְצֵֽנִי׃

But Jacob said, “No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably. (Bereshit 33.9-10)

Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are once again this year occurring unusually close to each other in the Western calendar. Such is the possibility when our lives are regulated by both the solar and lunar calendars, one for our secular lives, and one for our spiritual. As Jews, we know that our Jewish identity is sufficiently robust when we become uncomfortably aware of the clash between the demands of the two. Thus it has ever been for Jews living in Exile, with a foot planted in each of two very different worlds, and the daily demand upon us is to consider what the balance might look like today.

Both of these holidays are also considered to be a time for giving. The excess of Thanksgiving consumption, both of food and “holiday sales” items, years ago led to the response we call “Giving Tuesday”. Hanukkah, on the other hand, is not traditionally focused upon gifts, but upon gratitude for survival against the odds. The gift giving aspect of Hanukkah has arisen in the West as a Jewish syncretism with the Western holiday of Christmas.

Jewish giving at its best is not holiday determined, nor timed for end of the year appeals, although we have learned to adapt as the majority culture around us does. Our parashat hashavua this week offers an interesting meditation upon modes of giving: Jacob gives lavish gifts to his brother Esau after many years of absence. Esau does not need them. Why does Jacob insist? What should Esau do?

The traditional commentaries are interested in Jacob’s motivation. Both Ibn Ezra and Shnei Lukhot haBrit hold that we are to read the Torah exactly as written: 

כִּֽי־אָמַ֞ר אֲכַפְּרָ֣ה פָנָ֗יו בַּמִּנְחָה֙ הַהֹלֶ֣כֶת לְפָנָ֔י וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵן֙ אֶרְאֶ֣ה פָנָ֔יו אוּלַ֖י יִשָּׂ֥א פָנָֽי׃

For he reasoned, “If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him, perhaps he will show me favor.” (Bereshit 32.21)

Jacob here clearly hopes to soften any anger Esau might still feel toward him as a result of Jacob’s betrayal of his brother twenty years before. This is the gift given “with strings.”

We who follow the Jewish tradition of Torah Study consider the ethics of the situation. Here the great Moshe ben Maimon, Maimonides, guides us clearly and completely with his explanation of the mitzvah of giving found in his Matanot l’Evyonim 10 

  • We are obligated to be careful about the mitzvah of giving, for it is of supreme importance
  • A person is never impoverished through giving
  • Anyone who ignores the chance to give is called a barbarian (b’liya’al – “wicked”, also possibly “one who has no lift upward in the soul”)
  • One who gives with bad grace has destroyed the merit of the gift
  • The reward of one who compels others to give is greater than the one who gives
  • There are eight levels of giving; the highest is to help someone no longer need help
  • One who sustains those that one is not obligated to sustain is considered righteous
  • The poor and vulnerable should be part of our household
  • Those who lie about needing help will not die without coming to that place of need

What is Jacob doing? Probably as much from guilt as from fear, he is trying to achieve balance between what he took from Esau many years ago and what he can give now. Judging him l’khaf zekhut, with the benefit of the doubt, we can see ourselves in a similar emotional situation, perhaps, when we give to those who have less than us.

What is Esau doing? From the evidence of the Torah text itself, he is the soul of graciousness. He does not need to accept, yet the giver needs to give. 

To learn from Esau is to understand that it is sometimes a gift to let someone give you something, even if you do not need it. And to learn from Jacob is to know that sometimes, when gift, giver and given aligns in grace, we are able to see, a bit more clearly, the Face of acceptance, of forgiveness, of love.

The act of balancing is to consider both the needs of the giver and the receiver; both the inner motivation and the communal obligation; and, in our case, both the Western social expectation and the Jewish teaching.

May you learn to give, in this season and every season, in the path of righteousness, and may it lift you up.

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