It’s funny how the simple things can sometimes leave a lasting impression or at least introduce an idea that floats around in the back of your head until suddenly it ignites a spark. Just recently, I came across a cartoon drawing in which Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh were staring at each other. In the next frame, Mickey is seen cutting part of his red T-shirt, and the final picture shows Winnie wearing a rather small red T-shirt covering his shoulders. While the cartoon itself is cute, if anything, it is the quote underneath that I found inspiring. It read, “Your greatness is not what you have, but what you give.”
Today (and tomorrow) is Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of a new Hebrew month. We enter the Hebrew month of Adar, in which we celebrate the festival of Purim – a festival associated with great Simcha or joy, as we reflect on the victory of Esther, Mordechai and the Jewish people over the wicked Haman and his sons. As even our youngest students will tell (or rather, sing), Mishe Nichnas Adar, Marbim BeSimcha – as we enter the month of Adar, we increase our happiness (Ta’anit 29a). How did Adar get its well-earned reputation for joy?
The astrological sign of Adar is the fish (Pisces). Fish are very fertile, and for that reason are seen as a sign of blessing and fruitfulness. The Hebrew word for blessing is bracha, from the root letters bet, reish, kaff. In Jewish numerology (gematria), the letter bet has a value of two, reish is 200 and kaff is 20. Each of these is the first plural in their number unit. This teaches us that the Jewish concept of “blessing” is intertwined with fertility, represented by the fish of Adar. After all, if there is something good, why not let it increase?
However, Purim also forces us to think about the concept of giving. Purim is celebrated with four specific mitzvot (commandments) all of which demonstrate the value of giving. The first commandment involves reading or listening to the recitation of the Book of Esther, which traditionally is read publicly. A second commandment requires individuals to create mishloach manot (festive food packages) and deliver them to friends or the needy. A third commandment mandates the giving of matanot la’evyonim (charity to the poor) and finally, there is a commandment to have a Purim s’eudah (lavish festive meal) to which we invite family and friends. Purim, which is associated with joy and happiness, so much so that this one day has the power to elevate our simcha for the entire month, is also celebrated through the action of giving to others. Purim, I believe, reinforces the notion that giving to others enhances, enriches and extends our period of enjoyment.
Research corroborates the idea that we are happier giving gifts than receiving gifts. Social psychologist and Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, Liz Dunn and her colleagues, conducted research that shows that people’s sense of happiness is greater when they spend relatively more on others than on themselves.
In one survey of over 600 U.S. citizens, Dunn and her colleagues found that spending money on others promoted greater happiness, whereas spending money on oneself did not, and this pattern was found across all income levels. In other words, even those with little money reported greater happiness when their proportion of spending on others, relative to the self, was greater.
In a more controlled experiment, Dunn and her colleagues gave students at the University of British Columbia an envelope containing money and told them that they either had to spend the money on themselves before 5:00pm that day or had to spend the money on someone else before 5:00pm. Those who gifted to others were happier than those who spent the money on themselves. In some cases, there were $5 in the envelope and in other cases there were $20. The amount didn’t matter – the results were the same. Spending on others made people happier than spending on themselves.
Michael Norton, an associate professor of marketing at the Harvard Business School, together with Dunn, co-authored Happy Money, in which they outline a number of principles which, if adhered to, allow people to feel a sense of satisfaction from their spending. One such principle explains how spending money on others creates a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment. They write that this principle is just as relevant to individuals as it is to multinational companies such as Google and Coca Cola who have started to put these ideas into action.
Scientists around the world are also taking an interest in our ability to give to others, investing time and money into research experiments that involve the observation of giving within the animal kingdom. Worker ants sacrifice their ability to breed by building their nests, bees tirelessly gather food for their hives and vampire bats share their food in order to ensure their species does not starve. Professor Wilson, Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University, developed a series of experiments in his neighbourhood that involved dropping addressed letters on the ground to identify, where in the neighbourhood, people were most likely to pick them up and post them. He found that people who were kind enough to post the letters tended to cluster around other kind people. As a result, Professor Wilson is interested in creating environments within schools that reward acts of kindness among students which would then encourage others to become nicer. His theory suggests that these behaviours would then be passed down to the next generation, creating an evolution of kindness.
This week’s portion, Terumah, which describes the preparations for and the construction of the Mishkan (the portable sanctuary that the Jewish people carried with them throughout their journey in the wilderness), uses the word veyikchu in commanding the Jewish people to give or donate. The root letters of vayikchu, lamed, kuf and chet, really mean ‘take’ (the word to give is natan). Since the people were asked to give, why is the word to take used? The answer given is that in giving, we are actually also taking. By giving, whether it be financial or of ourselves such as our time or effort, we also ‘take’ from this experience. We receive satisfaction and gratification knowing that we have assisted and supported others.
We offer numerous opportunities for our students to give – be it through the Chesed program, which encourages students to participate in a wide variety of community service schemes, through the various charity initiatives we raise funds for throughout the year, or through involvement in many of our project-based leadership endeavours. We also encourage our students to help and support each other in the classroom or playground on a daily basis. If students want to find a way of giving back, we will do what we can to support them, the possibilities are endless. The Purim simcha reminds us of our responsibility to give. In so doing, we don’t just help others, by giving, we ultimately help ourselves.
May the month of Adar bring with it great joy and happiness for each of us.
About the author
Ronnen Grauman is the Acting Head of Jewish Life and Learning at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.