Vayishlach: Giving In Difficult Times


Dear Rabbi,

I look forward to reading you essays every week. As one of those many that never received a relevant Jewish education, your words have provided, dare I say transformed me, with a new way to look at myself and the world. They have helped me with my family and with my work. No words would suffice to express my profound appreciation.

I have been blessed with the ability to assist others financially. I am sincerely reluctant to cut down on my giving due to the current economic crisis, which is hurting us all. I would like to get your take on this. Is it justified for me to give less? What should be my attitude? I am sure that many people have this question, and would appreciate your wise words on the matter.

Wishing you the strength to continue your holy and necessary work,



Thank you for you very kind words. For the record, my writings are not my own creation; they come from my teachers and from books preceding us both. They are teachings that have transformed me as they have you, and hopefully I am doing some justice in conveying these ideas faithfully. May you and I – and us all – grow in learning and implementing these life-enhancing teachings, and share it with those that we come in contact with. Like a flame, each of us has the power to ignite another flame, and another, ad infinitum, and together – we all warm and illuminate each other in one glorious basking light.

The answer to your question is twofold: All blessings come from above, including the blessing of wealth. We humans surely have to create “containers” through our hard work, innovation and investments, but after all is said and done, our efforts are like seeds we plant in the field, which then require rain from above to water the earth and allow our seeds to sprout.

Thus, no matter what economic crisis may or may not exist, we cannot and ought not compromise our obligations and responsibilities to continue giving to the best of our abilities and beyond. Indeed, your ability to give is your greatest blessing and gift; you were blessed with extra wealth so that you have the opportunity to help others. Why would you want to close off this channel of blessings by weakening in any way your giving? On the contrary, the more committed you are, the greater container you build to receive the blessings of “rain” upon yourself.

As the great philanthropist George Rohr said in the name of his father, Sammy Rohr: “During good times, when things are going well, it’s no kuntz (trick; feat) to be a Baal Tzedaka. When it gets hard, that’s when it’s important. When everybody is in a pinch, trying to do everything to maintain the level they’ve been given before – if at all possible; that’s where we really get tested.”

At the same time, we need to be prudent and practical in our giving. I cannot tell you how much you should be giving; that is dependent on many factors, including your income, your potential, your general disposition to giving. Not the least amongst these factors includes your own faith and commitment, especially in hard times.

We ought to also bear in mind that a big part of an economic turndown is psychological. Though it has directly affected many people’s bank accounts, for many it’s about fear in this type of climate. Many wealthy people remain quite prosperous, yet psychologically they are frightened. For some the present economic forecast may also provide an “excuse” not to give, bearing in mind that giving is not an easy thing to do for most people.

The key thing to remember is that one should never decrease any commitment to giving due to fear or psychological reasons. Your negative attitude may be the cause that will limit your “containers” from receiving blessings in abundance. Even psychologically speaking, a broad minded attitude and optimism encourages others to have confidence and invest in you. While the opposite discourages investment.

How you balance these two – faith and pragmatism – is a challenge of its own, and needs to be addressed case by case.

Above all, allow me to share with you the prescient words of the Zohar in this week’s Torah portion, in explaining the cryptic episode of Jacob’s lonely battle with the “stranger:”

Jacob remained alone and a stranger wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he could not defeat him, he touched the upper joint of Jacob’s thigh. Jacob’s hip joint became dislocated as he wrestled with him. As a result Jacob was limping because of his thigh.

Explains the Zohar: Jacob refers to the Torah, and his hip symbolizes the financial supporters of Torah study and dissemination. Jacob being weakened by his hip dislocation represents a situation when the financial pillars (compared to legs) cease supporting Torah scholarship, which cause the Torah to be “forgotten from one generation to another and its strength weakened.”

As a result, the “negative forces” gain power with each day, and “much evil therefore results, since, as the upholders of the Torah become weaker, strength is thereby gained by him who has no legs to stand upon. When G-d said to the serpent, “upon your belly shall you crawl” (Genesis 3:14), the serpent had his supports and legs cut off so that he was left with nothing to stand on. But when Israel neglects to support the Torah, they thereby provide the “serpent” with supports and legs on which to stand firm and upright.

…Many were the stratagems and cunning devices to which the serpent-rider resorted on that night against Jacob, for he well knew that “the voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau” (Genesis 27:22), so that whenever the voice of Jacob is interrupted, the hands of Esau are reinforced. He therefore attempted in every possible way to interrupt Jacob’s voice, but he found him strong on all sides, his arms strong on both sides and firmly upheld between them, and the Torah firmly entrenched therein.

Seeing, therefore, that he could not prevail against him, he “touched his hip bone.” For he knew that when the supports of the Torah are broken, the Torah itself is shaken… His whole purpose in contending with Jacob was to break the force of the Torah, and when he saw that he could not strike at the Torah itself, he weakened the power of its upholders; for without upholders of the Torah there will be no “voice of Jacob”, and the hands of Esau will operate freely.

Upon seeing this, Jacob, seized hold of him, as soon as day broke, and did not let him go, so that he blessed him and confirmed to him those blessings, and said to him: “Your name shall be called no more Jacob (supplanter), but Israel (princehood and strength), so that no one can prevail against you.”

Now, from that serpent issue numerous hosts which disperse themselves on every side to prowl about the world. It is incumbent, therefore, upon us to preserve in a complete state the sinew of the thigh-vein, for although the serpent-rider touched it, it retained its vitality, and we require its strength to establish ourselves in the world and to make good the words: “For you have battled with G-d and with men, and have prevailed.” When the adversary sees that that part is not broken or consumed, his own strength and courage is broken and he can no more do any harm to the sons of Jacob (Zohar, I 171a).

The words of the Zohar speak for themselves. They tell us in no uncertain terms that we must stand form against any voice and challenge (including economic conditions) that argues against supporting (or weakening our support of) good causes. By succumbing to these challenges we actually feed the destructive forces that want to undermine the foundations that keep us standing. The “serpent” takes on many forms and issues many forces, including economic conditions, “which disperse themselves on every side to prowl about the world.” And when it cannot attack out source of life itself, it attacks its supporters.

Jacob’s teaches us and gives us the power to overcome these challenges, to battle and prevail over these forces, and actually transform them into blessings.

The Zohar this week is declaring loud and clear: Do not be deceived by the attempts of the “stranger” (in all his shapes and forms) to weaken your resolve and commitment to support your good causes. We must forge ahead with faith and trust.

Indeed, the mere fact that we take upon ourselves positive resolutions to continue giving and actually increase in giving despite these more difficult times, opens up the channels of blessings, including new channels, that will nourish our efforts and produce blessings in material abundance.

May you – and we all – be blessed to fight like Jacob and prevail over all doubts, anxieties and fears. And just as Jacob prevailed in his battle 3578 years ago, and we his children are here to tell about it, so too we are confident that we will prevail, and come out stronger than ever.


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