If you are poor, more money will usually increase your happiness. It is cruel to live without adequate shelter, access to good food, a solid education and other basic necessities. But studies consistently show once you have those things, an ever-expanding income does not translate into a more joyous life. Yet all too often we spend our life accumulating things rather than giving them away. 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 person 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.
Our midah/character trait for this week is generosity—in Hebrew, nedivut. Alan Morinis describes this path beautifully in his book Everyday Holiness:
God wants your heart. Real generosity means not only giving something practical that will be of help to someone; it also means changing something in yourself. Will your gift be just a thing, or will it be accompanied by joy, or empathy, or commitment, or love, or any of the other soul-traits that you cultivate in yourself? When you undertake to give your heart as well, you change an element of yourself. Each such act of generosity makes you into a more giving (or joyful, or empathic, or committed, or loving, or. . . ) person. And when you change yourself, you change the world.
Mussar Practice for this Week (from Every Day, Holy Day)
Do a different kind of generous act every day—one day with money, one day with time, one day with caring, one day with possessions, and the like.