Yitro: The Paradox of Self(ish)-Reliance

Judaism disagrees with the maxim, “It’s better to give than to receive.” (The source of this maxim is “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” a quote ironically attributed by one Jew – Saul of Tarsus, better known as Paul the Apostle -- to another Jew, Jesus, in the Christian Scriptures, Acts 20:35).  But the disagreement isn’t because Judaism thinks it’s better to receive than to give.  Rather, the maxim itself presents a misleading “zero-sum” of giving vs. receiving.  The actual dynamic is more one of symbiotic mutuality.  

One permutation of the “better to give than receive” philosophy is American culture’s praise of self-reliance (aka "rugged individualism.")  In this context, I’m interpreting self-reliance to mean either declining offered help or, more often, refusing to request it. Self-reliance isn’t so laudable, though, because when we either don’t ask others for help, or decline to accept it, we deprive others of the many benefits to themselves and to others of giving. 

By asking for and accepting help, we encourage others to engage in helpful behavior.  We help them to fulfill the crucial mitzvah, “Love your neighbor/fellow as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18).  We help them feel useful and productive, thus raising or reinforcing their self-esteem.  We quite possibly lessen their loneliness.  We strengthen their interpersonal connections and skills.  We help them broaden their experience and expand their empathy for others.  We help them to be happier.  And we help them live as examples to others of how people should act.   

Perhaps most importantly, when we ask for and/or accept help – even or especially when we can get by without it -- we “teach” others that there’s no shame in asking for or receiving help, and thus we encourage others to ask for and accept help.  Then, when they do so, they, in turn, help others in all the ways described.  It’s like the economic “multiplier” effect of a dollar invested and then repeatedly reinvested by its successive recipients.  

As for ourselves, when we readily and without embarrassment ask for and receive help, we receive many parallel social and psychic benefits in addition to the help itself.  We appreciate the help we’ve received, which helps us to “Love our neighbor as ourselves.”  Having asked for and received help, we are ourselves encouraged to help others.  Those who see or hear that we have benefited by seeking help are, in turn, encouraged to both seek and give help.  And, so on.  The circle, or “ripple,” or “multiplier” ever expands.  

In Hebrew, תן לי ("Tayn li") means both “let me” and “give me.” “Let me help” also means “give me help!”  We might refer to this as the “Paradox of Help,” the “Duality of Help,” or, best, “Mutuality of Help.”   We also see why צדקה ("Tzedakah") should be translated as “righteousness,” rather than as “charity.”  

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses accepts his father-in-law Jethro’s (Yitro) helpful advice in alleviating a burdensome judicial logjam.  Moses then accepts the help of his appointed assistants, who are helped by their own assistants, and so on.  In no way is Moses’ own leadership stature or self-respect lessened by his seeking and accepting this help, and the Torah give us the sense that the entire Israelite community is greatly benefited.  (Exodus 8:18-37). 

Many of us eschew, perhaps unconsciously, offering or asking for help. We feel embarrassed or are concerned that doing so will suggest or reveal limitation, difficulty, disorganization, adverse circumstances, or worse.  We don't want others to feel embarrassed or imply that they might need help. We don't want our self-image of self-reliance to be bruised, or to possibly bruise that of others. 

In part, though, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy…. If we all would more regularly ask others for help, offer others help, and readily accept help -- even when we don’t really need it, helpers and helped would all reap many benefits … as well as lessen the sense of stigma and reluctance when we or they really do need help.  

Excessive self-reliance is really self-ish reliance.  

Ask others for help often!  

And, or course, offer it often, too.  

Shabbat shalom.  



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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb