As we mentioned last week, Rav Natan of Breslav does not take the institution of gift-giving for granted. He finds two paradoxes in this practice. One was discussed last week; the second we will try to explain now.
Rav Natan suggests that giving gifts seems to be against the educational message of the Torah. “The main point of the giving of the Torah seems to be so that a person can receive the reward of the World to Come as the earnings for his labors, and not as a free gift”. He makes reference to the concept, emphasized by Rav Moshe Chaim Luzatto and others, that our effort in carrying out the mitzvot gives us an inner attachment to the spiritual reward, making it our own, and not the “bread of shame” of a handout. In effect, when we occupy ourselves with the transcendental tasks of mitzva observance this creates an attachment to the transcendental reward of experiencing the Divine presence.
By the same token, our human conduct should be focused on giving people material rewards that constitute at least nominal return for their efforts. (As we explained last week, the main objection does not seem to be to charitable gifts, which are given in order to fulfill vital needs, for we certainly recognize HaShem’s role in providing for the needs of all. Rav Natan’s focus would seem to be social gifts among those who are not needy.)
Rav Natan answers this objection by pointing out that before the Torah was given, the spiritual sustenance of humanity was not through the merit of Torah study and Torah observance, for the Torah had not yet been given. Rather, a unique Divine dimension inhered even in worldly pursuits, “derekh eretz”, through a hidden or latent Torah, which was given to humanity as a gift, not as a recompense. He speaks of a “treasury” of gratuitous bounty through which HaShem provides some level of spiritual attainment even in the absence of Torah study and observance.
Rav Natan further demonstrates that this dimension of reward, one not predicated on Torah study and Torah observance, was not extinguished at the moment of the Giving of the Torah. On the contrary, it is this dimension that provides us with spiritual sustenance during those moments of the day when we are not occupied directly with learning or with mitzvot. In these moments also, HaShem enlivens us through the latent aspect of Torah in our mundane concerns. (These mundane actions are “plugged in” to Torah through the actions of the outstanding saints of each generation. Such individuals, such as Rav Nachman, are constantly bound to Torah through their intense scholarship, devotion and righteousness; yet they also are occupied at times with mundane concerns. This “distraction” of the tzadik actually enlivens routine everyday activities for all, demonstrating to everyone that even these routine acts can be done with an intense consciousness of G^d’s presence and influence.)
Thus, while the giving of the Torah introduced a unique dimension of reward into the world, providing a means for individuals to attain enlightenment through their efforts, Torah did not completely efface the prior aspect of enlightenment through Divine grace, as a freely willed gift. This aspect remains a complementary dimension of G-d’s plan for humanity. Thus it is appropriate for us too, at times, to give voluntary gifts to our friends.
As always, Rav Natan connects his profound spiritual insight with a specific halakhic rule. He writes that this approach to gift-giving can explain why the halakha requires gifts to be given openly and publicly (See SA CM 242:3). The spiritual importance of the “gift” aspect of G-d’s providence is that it enlivens our mundane everyday activities, those that are seemingly far from Torah. This aspect of life is often connected with the street or the “public domain”, as we have written in other columns (for example, on carrying and the eiruv). Thus the gift itself should be given openly, in the marketplace or “public domain”.
Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.