July 25, 2024
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The Glory of Giving Back

In reference to the lighting of the Menorah, the midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 15:5) relates that Hashem said to Bnei Yisrael, “You should provide light for me the same way I provided light for you [in the wilderness], in order so that you should be raised up [i.e., glorified] before the nations of the world.” The midrash explains this idea with a parable: There was once a sighted man and a blind man walking on the road. The sighted man said to the blind man when he entered the house, “Go ahead of me and light this lamp and provide me with light.” The blind man responded, “Please do me a favor and explain to me why is it that when I was walking on the road you would support me and you would escort me until we entered the house, and now you say to me to light a lamp for you to provide you with light?” The sighted man explained himself to the blind man: In order that you not be beholden to me for having escorted you on the road, that is why I told you that you should provide light for me in the house.” The Midrash thus explains that Hashem Who lit up the path for Bnei Yisrael as they wandered through the desert is comparable to the sighted man, whereas Bnei Yisrael correspond to the blind man.

Apparently, there is a seeming contradiction here: On the one hand, the midrash began by saying that the lighting of the Menorah was in order for us to be glorified before the nations of the world, whereas the parable given to explain that seems to indicate that the reason was in order for us to not be beholden to Hashem!? I thought that perhaps we must need to explain these two reasons as really one. In other words, the way we indeed will be glorified before the nations is exactly because of the fact that we will not be beholden. Meaning, by realizing and expressing that we have the ability to give back to Hashem, that will result in us being elevated. If this is true, why is this so? What does “giving back” have to do with being exalted?

I always wondered about a certain phenomena that occurs both in myself and with others. Many times when someone would give me a compliment, I was quick to shoot back with a compliment of my own. I always wondered where that came from. I also noticed that when I would give compliments to others or when I saw someone giving a compliment to another person, the recipient was also quick to offer up his or her own words of praise to their “complimenter.” Why is this? Why can’t we just take a compliment like a man? Why do we have this impulse to give back? I thought that maybe this phenomena occurs because of a certain nature that exist within us: we can’t stand being beholden. It may be difficult for us to take from others, and when we do—even in the form of simple words of praise—we feel a tremendous pull to need to give back.

Why can’t we stand being beholden and indebted to others? It almost sounds like something bothers us when we get a compliment or when we receive anything from someone! There may be many reasons, but I think one compelling reason is that receiving something may actually be a blow to our self-esteem. Hashem created us in His image, and therefore, much like Hashem is “independent,” so to speak, we also might naturally desire to be independent. Being a recipient indicates to us that we are lacking in some capacity, and this discomfort is so piercing that it sometimes causes a “knee-jerk reaction” to give back in order to balance out our personal playing field, so that once again we are in the position of giving and not taking.

We—the Bnei Yisrael—were recipients of much of Hashem’s goodness in the wilderness. Naturally, this might have caused us to feel uncomfortable about ourselves, perhaps less dignified and lacking in the need to be independent and on the giving end. Thus, perhaps Hashem was giving us the opportunity to give back to Him in the form of lighting for Him the same way He lit up the path for us in order to boost our esteem both individually and on a national level as the Jewish nation. By giving us the opportunity to give back, we perhaps achieved or re-gained this state of glory and distinctness both personally and nationally. That may explain why giving back to Hashem was the reason for being “raised up” before the nations of the world.

The upshot from all this is that the idea of “giving back”—be it to other people who have done good to you or to Hashem Himself—is not just an idea linked to hakarat hatov or of being ethical. Rather, it’s both one of the most humanizing and also Godly acts that we can engage in because it restores our psyche toward feelings of capability, assertion and ambition. In no way does this mean that being on the taking end is a fault or should make one feel bad about oneself. There is much to say about being on the taking end and knowing how to take (like in our example, not shooting back a compliment of your own but rather acknowledging and appreciating the one who praised you). The point here is that we should be motivated to engage in giving back to those who have given to us, because doing so will help us reach a plateau where we can feel and act more Godly.

By Binyamin Benji


Binyamin Benji is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan, and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He currently learns in Lakewood, and is the author of the Sephardic Congregation of Paramus’ weekly Torah Talk. He can be reached at [email protected].

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