Parashat Vayeitzei 5782

A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayeitzei
By Rabbi Katy Allen (’05)

Click HERE for an audio recording of this D’var Torah

Once long ago and far away there lived a wise Queen who ruled a small but thriving territory. The Queen had three daughters. As each daughter came of age, the Queen gave her 10 pieces of gold and admonished her to use them both wisely and compassionately. The oldest daughter gave one piece of gold to help feed and clothe the poor and hungry, and the Queen was pleased by this. The second daughter gave two pieces of gold to help feed and clothe the poor and hungry, and the Queen was much pleased by this. The third daughter gave three – and some say she gave all 10 – pieces of gold to help feed and clothe the poor and hungry, and the Queen was not pleased.

The origins of this modern fable can be found in the beginning of this week’s parasha, Vayeitzei, when Jacob, fleeing for his life from his brother Esau, spends the night in the desert. He rests his head upon a stone, falls asleep, and dreams of angels going up and down on a ladder and of G!d speaking to him. In his awe upon waking, he then uses the stone as a pillar, pours oil on it, and vows that if he survives and thrives, he will acknowledge and serve G!d, and aseir a’asrenu, a tenth a tenth, of what G!d gives him, he will give back to G!d (Gen. 28:22).

Rashi and other commentators say that aseir a’asrenu actually means a fifth. Jacob will give a fifth of all of his produce to G!d. In other words, 20 percent, which is a lot.

It’s hard to imagine anyone feeling that giving a fifth of their income isn’t enough, but a baraita in the Talmud (Ketubot 50a) tells the story of an individual who wanted to give more than one-fifth of his earnings. The general consensus of the rabbis is that this person had given too much. They maintained that donating, sacrificing, or otherwise giving has its limit, and that that limit is twenty percent. Don’t, they say, give away more than one-fifth of your earnings.

Why not? The major reason was that if you gave too much, more than you could really afford, you yourself could end up having to accept donations because you’ve made yourself poor. Which, in the long run, helps no one. Over the centuries, various ways around the 20 percent limit were devised and allowed, such as to redeem a captive or for people who have so much money that they will barely notice it. But the twenty percent became embedded in the tradition.

The Talmudic discussion of the rabbis quoted above was about tangible goods. But what about the intangible gifts of our heart? Is there a limit to how much we can give of our time, our wisdom, our love, our counseling? The Mishnah tells us “These are the things that have no measure… acts of lovingkindness…,” (Mishnah Peah 1:1) but our lived lives remind us that there really must be a limit here, as well. If we give too much of ourselves, without holding in reserve enough time, energy, and delight to maintain our own wellbeing and our own sanity, then, too, will we end up not being able to help others but instead will need support ourselves.

What is our limit for intangible giving? Should it also be twenty percent, of our time, our energy, our good-will? Only we can know the answer for ourselves. If we are at all self-aware, we know when we begin to go beyond our giving limit, for the warning signs quickly show themselves: lack of patience, lack of compassion, lack of sensitivity. These feelings tell us to slow down and take care of ourselves, or we will become useless to others.

There is compassion in giving, wisdom in limiting how much we give, and discernment in knowing when we need to push beyond our limits for a specific situation, such as to save a life. And then, in order to be able to help in that way again one day, we must, before too long, return to honoring our limits.

The Queen was, indeed, wise.
Rabbi Katy Allen (AJR ’05) is the founder and rabbi of Ma’yan Tikvah – A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long and has a growing children’s outdoor learning program, Y’ladim BaTeva. She is the founder of the Jewish Climate Action Network-MA, a board certified chaplain, and a former hospital and hospice chaplain. She lives in Wayland, MA, with her spouse, Gabi Mezger, who leads the.singing at Ma’yan Tikvah. She blogs, and invites others to share their wisdom as well, at