Sunday, May 27, 2012

Getting by Giving (Portion Naso)

Whoever dies with the most toys wins.

I have often seen this bumper sticker—and every time I do, it saddens me.  The notion that we can achieve contentment by accruing a bunch of stuff is perhaps the most damning and destructive lie at the heart of unbridled laissez-faire capitalism.  As Ecclesiastes realized three thousand years ago, amassing anything—wealth, fame, power and even knowledge—is, in the end, pure vanity.  The Rabbis put it succinctly: “Who is happy?  Those who rejoice in their own portion.”  Or in Sheryl Crow’s insightful take on this wisdom: “It’s not getting what you want—it’s wanting what you’ve got.”

In this week’s portion, Naso—the longest in the Torah—we find another version of this lesson.  Numbers 5:8-9 teaches: “Any gift among the sacred donations that the Israelites offer shall be the priest’s.  And each shall retain his sacred donations: what a man gives to the priest shall be his.”  By the standard reading, “his” is a reference to the priest, who receives the gift.  But the Talmud (Brachot 63a) offers an alternative interpretation, in which “his” refers to the donor.  In other words, as the commentary in Etz Hayyim notes, it is only when we give something away that the gift, and the good deed that it represents, becomes permanently ours.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner captures the essence of this paradox in his path-breaking book, Honey from the Rock.  He writes of our central human challenge: “To learn that it is good for you when other people love other people besides you.  That I get more when others give to others.  That if I hoard it, I lose it.  That if I give it away, I get it back.”

In other words, the things that matter most—love, kindness, wisdom—do not follow the rules of the “dismal science” of economics.  Paradoxically, it is only when we share what we have that we can gain and grow.

Or, to amend that bumper sticker: Whoever dies with the fewest toys wins.

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