As a young wife, my dear friend Eliana lost both of her parents within a year. At the same time, she was dealing with a high-risk pregnancy, complete with every uncomfortable symptom imaginable. To an outsider, her life appeared to be falling apart, and she had every reason to be depressed, defeated, and focused on her own needs.
However, almost every time we spoke, she would ask me, “Can I help you with anything?” “Is there anything I can do for you?” This attitude was not even exclusive to our relationship! It seemed that she was constantly seeking out opportunities for chesed. I couldn’t understand how she had the strength to always reach out to others when she herself was going through such a difficult time. Her desire to give seemed to know no bounds–and I was inspired.
After reading an article by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein on the topic of giving to others, I began to understand where her strength and happiness stemmed from. As told in the article, a young man wrote a letter to his rabbi explaining his problems and seeking advice. It read:
I am not doing well in my school. I sweat the small stuff. I have a hard time waking up in the morning. I have trouble focusing. I have difficulty with prayer.
The rabbi wrote back by simply returning his original letter with the first word of every sentence circled: I. The rabbi politely pointed out that each of the man’s complaints began the same way. It was clear to him that the man’s focus was on making himself happy. He explained that if it was happiness he desired, one of the optimal ways to experience it fully would be by focusing on, and giving to, others.
Giving is something that can foster joy for anyone involved in the act. The Hebrew word for giving, natan, is a palindrome. This is a clear symbol for what the word describes. Whether you’re the person receiving or the one giving, there is so much to be gained. When we give to someone else, the joy comes right back to us. We benefit just as much, if not more, when we give.
Alternately, acting in predominantly self-focused ways can lead to feelings of disappointment and loneliness. But when we reach out to give to others, we gain that rare inner joy we all hope for.
When I thought more about Eliana’s life, I realized that it was actually her free acts of selfless giving that gave her strength. She appeared joyful and full of energy when caring for others. Perhaps reaching outward helped her to move the focus from her own pain to the happiness inherent in helping others. It seemed she was a great example of how giving actually benefits the giver.
I understood this concept with great clarity when I went hiking with my family. We are so lucky to live in a state where we are surrounded by the complex beauty that only nature can provide. A recent trip to Northern California featured gigantic Redwood trees that are as majestic as they are tall and strong.
The trees in a Redwood forest can grow up to 300 feet tall, and the largest Redwood grown on record weighs approximately four million pounds!
People assume that a tree of that magnitude must have incredibly deep roots to keep it upright. However, after researching this, scientists have discovered that Redwood trees, while hundreds of feet tall, have roots that reach mfive or six feet into the ground. How could this be? The answer is actually found in these underwhelming roots. The roots of the redwood tree don’t grow downward, they grow outward. The roots reach out to other trees surrounding them and latch on to one another. Similarly, when we reach out and give to other people, we grow stronger and taller. The support we offer to others actually supports us.
During challenges, when it feels like we may not have deep enough roots to keep us upright, if we can reach out, connect, and give to others, the action can actually give us the power we need to push through.
Sometimes in life, pushing ourselves to give to others when we ourselves are entrenched in difficulty seems like an impossibility. On an average weekday afternoon, while trudging through endless emails and meetings, we may be approached to join a Mealtrain for a new parent, or help put together an upcoming event. Often, our gut reaction may be to ignore the call to help because we are already too busy. Stretching ourselves to give more at that moment might feel like climbing a daunting hill–we just don’t think we can make it to the summit. But Hashem merely wants us to do our best to help. He says to us, Yes, it seems impossible, but just try to lend a hand, and I will guide you over the obstacle. Often when we push ourselves to do a little more, we find we have additional energy that we didn’t have before.
As the old saying goes, if you want to get something done, ask a busy person to help.
I once heard an incredible story of a couple who became new parents on a glorious summer day. After seemingly endless sleepless nights, both parents were exhausted. In spite of his exhausted state, the new father went to visit a close friend who was recovering from minor surgery and brought the newborn baby along. When the visit ended, he drove back home and went right to bed, exhausted. He was completely sleep-deprived, but felt proud he had made time for the mitzvah of bikur cholim (visiting the sick).
Suddenly, a ringing phone woke him from his deep sleep. He quickly silenced it and continued his nap. However, the phone kept ringing. He saw it was the friend he had just visited, and chose to silence it again. The phone rang once more. He lay there, half-awake, facing an internal battle: To answer? Or not? It might be an emergency, he ultimately decided, and picked up the call. Expecting to hear some urgent request, he was surprised when his friend simply asked if he had any Tylenol.
This new parent was seething inside. He thought to himself, All those constant calls just for some Tylenol? On the inside he was fuming, but reluctantly agreed to bring him some. Still somewhat drowsy from his nap and more than a little frustrated, the man went back to his car to head to his friend’s house. He went to open the car door, and to his horror, he realized that he had left his brand new baby in the backseat in the scorching sun! Had he not answered the call to do chesed, the unthinkable may have occurred.
When we give selflessly, that goodness comes back to us in one form or another. We may stand taller, become more energetic, or in some extreme instances, an act of kindness might actually save a life. We are often tired, overwhelmed, and don’t think we can push ourselves any more than we already do. But much like the Redwood tree–and my friend, Eliana–reaching out just might be the key ingredient that enables us to reach heights we never thought possible in life. When we stretch beyond the I, we are given back a life full of happiness and significance.
Sarah Pachter is a dynamic, motivational speaker who has lectured throughout the US and Israel. For the past fifteen years Sarah has taught women of all ages and levels of Jewish observance, drawing in large crowds with her innovative and personal touch.
Sarah has been featured on the Radio, is a regular columnist, and a freelance writer for the Jewish Press, Aish.com, Ami, The Jewish Home as well as many other publications. She has authored Small Choices Big Changes published by Targum Press. She currently resides in Los Angeles with her husband and four children.