Vaiyetzei: How to Bargain with G-d

Is it okay to try to bargain with G-d for what we want, and if so, what's the most likely effective method?

In this week’s Parashah, Vayeitzei, Jacob flees from his brother Esau after receiving their father’s blessing through trickery.   Jacob is quite literally fleeing for his life, and is terrified that Esau will pursue and kill him.  Moreover, as a homebody, Jacob is fearful just to travel a long distance alone.

Even after G-d assures him in a dream/vision that all will go well, Jacob awakens and vows: “If G-d will be with me and He will guard me on this way that I am going, and He will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and I will return safely to my father’s house, and Adonai will be a G-d to me, then this stone that have set up as a monument will become a house of G-d and I will give you a tenth of all that You give to me.”   (Genesis 28:20-22). 

Is this kind of bargaining permitted?  “Do this for me, G-d, and I’ll do something for You?” 

Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is, “Yes…if the offer to G-d is good enough!”  Fortunately, most of us have plenty to eat and wear, are not fleeing from danger, and are in reasonably good health.  Still, there are often things we want … and, according to Judaism, there is also something that G-d wants very much from us. That something is to give tzedakah (charity).  Judaism obligates us to give a minimum of ten percent of our after-tax income to needy individuals or charitable causes.  

Normally, we can’t make a binding agreement that only requires us to do what we are already obliged to do.  (Lawyers call this “failure of consideration.”)  Under this principle, we can’t bargain with G-d by saying, “G-d, do such-and-such for me and I’ll observe Shabbat, keep kosher, end my marital affair, etc.”  So, neither should we be able to bargain with G-d for what we want in exchange for meeting our existing tzedakah obligation.  But tzedakah is so important that it’s an exception.

Dennis Prager presented the following hypothetical case to several thousand high school students.  Two people, with precisely the same wealth, are approached by a person they know who is in desperate need of food and money for his family.  The first person listens to the man’s appeals, expresses great sympathy, and gives the man $5.  The second person is in a rush, but feeling obligated to tithe, give him $100.  Which was better, giving $5 from one’s heart, or giving $100 because one’s religion commands one to do so?  

Routinely, 70 or 90 percent of the teens answered that the person who gave $5 out of his heart had done the better thing.  This response suggests that most people care less about the good their money is doing than about how they feel giving it.  When Prager asked the same students if they would vote the same if they were the need person, they were taken aback; they had not considered that perspective.  Prager explains: “Judaism would love you to give 10 percent of your income each year from your heart.  It suspects, however, that in a large majority of cases, were we to wait for people’s hearts to prompt them to give a tenth of their money away, we would be waiting a very long time.  Therefore, Judaism says, “Give 10 percent, and if your heart catches up, terrific.” In the meantime, good has been done.”

As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin suggests, we can expand this practice of bargaining in exchange for tzedakah anytime we hope for or need anything – even a boost of self-confidence.  He cites the example of nervous flyers pledging to give tzedakah and then doing so before flying, resulting in a less frightening experience.  It such situations, it’s not accurate to say, “It may not help, but it can’t hurt!” because it does help – both the flyer and, more importantly, the recipient!   

So, even if we do no more than meet our 10% after-tax obligation (although more is better), we should go ahead and try to bargain with G-d for (almost) anything.  We just need to use the right bargaining chip: helping those in need.

Shabbat shalom.

*Cited in Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, 512-513 and Telushkin, A Code of Jewish Ethics, Vol 2., 163-4.

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3