To Take or Not to Take

by Chana Klein

The message in the fortune cookie read:"We cannot be happy unless we think we are the means of good to others."


While Torah is my life-guide, I thought it was interesting that I got a fortune cookie that targeted one of the issues I have been pondering. Isn't everything from the Master of the Universe anyway?


The fact is that doing good for others makes me happy and I have a hard time taking. It's always for me so much easier to be the giver.


I ask you: Is it ever better to receive than to give? Is it okay to take?


When one of my sons was in second grade, he received a very serious diagnosis and he would no longer be able to attend the regular classroom. He was being assigned to a school that specialized in children with issues like his.


We were to begin the new school on Monday. His teacher called me to ask me to come to school with him on Friday which was officially his last day in the regular classroom. She said that the children wanted to say good bye and wish him well. We arrived at about 11 am to a classroom filled with parents of his classmates, gift wrapped boxes, cakes, drinks, decorations, and a wall to wall banner with my son's name on it. We sat down in the back of the room.


As we watched, each child took his/her turn standing in front of the room saying something nice to my son about who he is, and wishing him well in his new school. Each child gave him a present that s/he had made for him. It took a long time to get through each child's personal message. I remember sitting at the little desk in back of the room and being so moved by all this. But the whole time wishing with all my might that it were me giving this to someone else's child rather than receiving this great kindness for mine. What made it even more bewildering for me is that we were receiving deep kindness from people we did not even know.  Oh, how I yearned to be the one giving, and oh how I wanted to hide as the one receiving.


I even have difficulty asking for anything extra when staying in a hotel, when eating in a restaurant, or even as a patient in the hospital.


And so it has been with some other events in my life, as well, when I wanted to be the giver and had to be the one taking.


Just recently, I had surgery. Having to be flat on the hospital bed for days and not feeling up to do anything else, several of you reading this story were there for me at my bedside and at my every request. In reality, I know that was the most healing part of the surgery experience. I was and still am in awe of the kindness, the giving, that I received.  My tears flowed from gratitude and from knowing how blessed I am to know such people, such people who while taking care of me, made me feel that they were the ones receiving from me, just by spending time with me.


But still, how I would rather be the giver. And how receiving is a whole different experience.


Can it be true that taking is also a way of giving? Without someone taking, no one would be able to give. The giver gets to raise his self esteem and to know that he is doing good, just like the fortune cookie says. If there is no taker, there can be no giving.


But when we take, it lowers our self esteem. We need to give back in order to correct that. As a result, we give back even more than we had gotten in the first place in a perhaps subconscious effort to correct the lowered self esteem


Taking also creates a sense of dependency in the taker and that is not comfortable. I have seen people "hate" the one who gave the most. While the giver feels good giving s/he also ends up with very positive feelings toward the recipient.


Think about how a parent giving to an infant loves the child more than life itself despite being up all night, hearing him cry and scream, dealing with messy diapers, and the endless chores necessary to care for the baby.  Isn't it true that children often "hate" the parents, at least for a while, until they are less dependent? Letting a child give back in some way may alleviate those feelings.


Moses tells God that he can be the leader of Israel because he never took anything from anyone.  (Deuteronomy 16:15 - Parshat Korach), “Lo chamor echad meihem nasati, I did not take even one donkey from the people.”  The Or HaChaim HaKodesh explains that Moses would have no reason to hate anyone and thereby use the powerful names of God against them if they never gave him anything.   In other words, if he did not take, then he will not hate anyone.  

Shmuel Ha Navi ( Shmuel I 12:2)  also makes a similar claim regarding taking:  “ve-chamor mi lakachti, whose donkey have I taken?” 

One of the Laws of Persuasion is called "Law of Reciprocity." It says that when someone does something for us we feel a strong need, a push, to return the favor. In many cases, the need to give back is so overwhelming that we end up dramatically exceeding the original gift.


My friend Naomi (not the real name), a wonderful teacher, shared with me that when her school had Meet- the-Teacher-Days for her kindergarten class, the mom of a student new in the neighborhood was very ill and not able to attend. Naomi called the mom and offered to come with the other teachers to the woman's home to meet the new student. The mom was reluctant to "take" her up on this.  But the teachers were insistent. To those great teachers, it was the natural thing to do. They convinced her and they set a time. The teachers piled into the car and showed up at the house to meet with the child and the mom.


Naomi shared with me that the mom had put out a lavish spread of desserts for the teachers. She couldn't understand why the mom would go to such lengths.

I explained to Naomi that the mom, while greatly appreciating the dedication of the teachers, may have been uncomfortable being the recipient of such great kindness and so wanted to give back in an even greater way.


Who better to understand that than I, who would feel exactly the same way?

This need to give back happens even when the original gift was not wanted.


When Ben's family moved to a new area, in an effort to start off with a good relationship with his new neighbors, he gave a small holiday gift to each of them. The gifts he gave were each worth under $5. About 30 minutes after hand delivering the gifts, the doorbell rang. There stood one of the neighbors with a large box of truffles. Ben emphasized the word "large" because this box had been holding at least $50 work of chocolates. The neighbor said "Happy holidays and welcome to the neighborhood," as she gave the gift to Ben's wife.

I see this as the lady being uncomfortable "taking" without offering something in return. To correct that, she offered something worth 10 times more than Ben's original gesture.

Sometimes, the push one feels to give back can be satisfied by passing the good fortune to another person in the same position of need rather than to the original source of giving.


In 1975, we moved to Los Angeles, California. I was very pregnant with my third child and my ex husband was employed as a stock-broker-trainee. I don't really know how the Winnetka School in Canoga Park, that my two older children attended, figured out that we were not too well off financially. It's not like I wore a sign. But maybe I did, in some way. Anyway, I was quite surprised when before Thanksgiving; they sent us a coupon for a turkey that they had already paid for. I was very moved and grateful.


But of course, I had to give back. I couldn't give back a turkey or a few turkeys to the school. Instead, when I went back to earning a salary, I found some needy families, and every year, anonymously sent each a turkey coupon with a note enclosed explaining that during our time of need, we were gifted a turkey. Now, that we are able, we are passing it on to you. Please do the same when you are able to. I was giving back so much more that I received and that felt great.

In all of these incidents, people are giving back even more than they are given. In most cases that is the natural



Is the Law of Reciprocity true for the Torah writings as well?

As the story goes in Kings II 4:8


A wealthy Shunamite woman offers a meal to Elisha, the prophet whenever he passes by. Then she has her husband enclose a small upper chamber for Elisha to stay in when he is in town.  Elisha "takes" her up on her offer.


On one of the visits, Elisha tells his servant Gehazi to call in the woman. As she stands before them, Elisha tells Gehazi to say to her: "You have gone to all this trouble for us. What can we do for you?"


Elisha then offers to speak to the king or the army commander on her behalf. But she explains that all is well with her.


Still Elisha persists. He has to do something for her, even if there is nothing she wants. He discusses it with Gehazi and asks him, "What then can be done for her?" Gehazi tells Elisha, " She has no son and her husband is old."


Gehazi, not the woman, mentioned that need. The woman was fine. But because the Shunamite woman had given Elisha and his servant comfort, Elisha seems here to feel that push to give back. Elisha was the prophet who was known for his miracles. He got requests daily from people who had great needs. But he here is not making an effort to give to those in need.  His inclination is that he must give back to this woman whether she wants it or not.  


As in the other examples, he gives back far more than he was given. He promises her that by this time next year, she will have a son.  This is likely something she had tried for and given up and not something she would ever turn down. But whose need is being met here - Elisha's need to give back or the Shunamite woman's need to have a son?


Is it possible that Elisha was feeling the inclination to reciprocate and therefore was not actually seeing and hearing the woman's real needs?


Elisha's "taking" results in greater giving than he himself receives. Naomi's giving results in the mom giving more than what she and her daughter received. In the same way, Ben's family gets back more than they gave from one of the recipients. Does this mean that taking results in greater giving?


Perhaps that uncomfortable feeling that I get when having to take is really a good thing because it spurs me on to give more. I have been there a lot for many of the people who helped me in the hospital.

Can we conclude that taking increase the flow of give and take in the world?

Taking may really be the force behind great giving.


Does this realization make it more comfortable for me to receive? Does it change your own feelings about it? Coming to the realization that taking is not really all that bad, I ask myself if I will still be so uncomfortable as the receiver.

I don't think I will know until I am in the situation. But if the discomfort still exits, it will be an opening to explore this topic further and write another story.

 Copyright © 2009 Chana Klein




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