Today is Giving Tuesday, a day when we try to shift focus back to giving following the post-Thanksgiving consumption rush.
Giving is like everything else in life: we can always level up.
As I contemplated what it means to give and serve at higher levels, I found inspiration and insight in one of the final verses of the Book of Proverbs. The final twenty-two verses of Proverbs (Chapter 31: 10–31) form the hymn known as Eishet Chayil, the description of and tribute to the “woman of valor,” or “accomplished woman”. Verse 20 describes how this archetypal Divine Feminine woman gives to those in need:
She spreads out her palm to the poor (l’ani), and extends her hands to the destitute (l’evion).
In the prayer book I use, the commentary explains that,
The evion, the destitute, is in a more desperate situation than the ani, poor person. Even as [the woman of valor] helps both, she recognizes that one is in more need than the other. Therefore, to the poor person, she opens up her hand allowing him to take what he wishes. To the destitute one, she takes the initiative by extending her hands to give him what he needs.
There are three simple and profound lessons in this that are worth considering, both in this season of giving and throughout the year.
(1) People have different needs. We must address their needs as individuals.
Even within a group of people who need help, not everyone needs the same thing. It’s a common fallacy to group together all people who share a psychographic or demographic trait.
Take homelessness as an example: we have cultural assumptions and biases about people living on the streets: are on the streets are drug addicts or alcoholics who will use money to buy drugs instead of food, that they are lazy, that they have people who could help them, that they could have avoided their fate of sleeping on the street.
Although the commentary highlights the distinction between the poor person and the destitute person, the focus of the entire poem is about the Eishet Chayil, the “woman of valor,” and what her actions teach us.
The point is not so much that one person has a greater need than the other, but that they have different needs. While many would group together the poor man and the destitute man, the Eishet Chayil looks beneath the surface. She sees each as an individual with distinct needs and helps each according to his need.
Lesson: People have different needs. We can uplevel our giving by seeing people as the individuals they are and addressing the specific needs of each person.
(2) People in need don’t always ask for what they need. We must anticipate their needs.
The hardest thing for a person in need is to ask for help.
We all have moments when we are in need of support — whether that support is financial, emotional, physical, intellectual, relational, or spiritual.
Sometimes we don’t know how to ask, and sometimes we resist asking because of the meaning we give to the request.
We have a culture of shame around asking for and receiving support. Look, for example, at our assumptions and judgments about people who receive welfare, or who live in shelters, or receive food stamp assistance.
This shame carries beyond the support for basic monetary needs. I’ve found this to be especially true for people — like myself and my clients — who otherwise consider themselves to be independent, achievement-oriented, and driven.
Among other reasons we struggle to ask for help is that we get hung up on what it will mean for us to ask for help: that we can’t do it on our own, that we lack knowledge or ability, that we don’t have all the answers.
We can get caught in a limiting belief and expectation that just because we have achieved a certain level in life, we should know certain things, even if we never learned such things.
Whether we need financial support, a pep talk, someone to walk us through how to do something we want to do, a place to stay, or someone to hold us when it feels like everything is crashing down, asking for what we need is hard.
The Eishet Chayil preempts the shame of those in need by reaching out and offering: opening her palm and extending her hands. Rather than reacting to a request, she anticipates and offers proactively, to spare those in need the shame of asking. This is one of the ways in which she embodies the virtues of wisdom and kindness.
Lesson: People in need don’t always ask for help because they feel ashamed for needing help. We can uplevel our service to others by reaching out proactively, relieving them from the need to ask.
(3) People in need don’t always know what they need. We must stretch to serve them.
Whereas the commentary asserts that the distinction between the poor and the destitute person is one of degree — one is needier than the other — I view it as a function of awareness.
Aside from the shame associated with asking for help, another reason people in need don’t ask for support is that they don’t know what they need.
Perhaps you’ve been in a situation where someone asked, “how can I help,” and your best response was to shrug your shoulders and say “I don’t know.” Or perhaps you’ve experienced this when you tried to help someone.
The Eishet Chayil teaches us the difference between helping someone who knows what he needs and someone who doesn’t know.
The difference in the language here teaches us something crucial about the act of giving.
To the poor person, who knows what he needs, the Eishet Chayil opens her palm so he can take what he needs. In effect, she says,
Here is what I have; take what you need.
This is an easy act that doesn’t require her to go much out of her way. She is not inconvenienced.
To the destitute person, who doesn’t know what he needs, the Eishet Chayil extends her hands.
Notice the plural noun: Hands. Both of them.
Notice the verb: Extend.
She reaches. She goes out of her way.
Giving to people who don’t know what they need requires us to open the doors of possibility for them. This may be inconvenient; it may call us to stretch beyond ourselves and push the edges of our comfort zones.
Lesson: People in need of help may not ask for help because they don’t know what they need. Giving to these people may be inconvenient and require us to extend ourselves in ways that feel uncomfortable.
How to Give to Those Who Don’t Know What They Need: The Qualities of CARE
Offering support to someone who doesn’t even know what he needs requires more than a willingness to give; it requires that we also CARE.
“Care” is one of those words that is overused to the point of emptiness. What does it mean to care? What does that look and feel like?
A couple of years ago, I came up with four key virtues of CARE that serve as my guideposts:
- Compassion. From Latin, it literally means the willingness to suffer with another person.
- Acceptance. Meeting people where they are, without judgment.
- Respect. No matter how destitute a person, financially or in other realms, each person is still a human being worthy of our respect and love.
- Empathy. Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and appreciating their world from their perspective.
To embody these virtues of CARE for others is among the greatest gifts we can give.
Tying it Together: How can we apply this to our lives?
No matter your station in life, you know people who need help, even within your immediate circle. Not everyone needs financial support. Some might need physical or emotional support, intellectual, relational or spiritual support. A person might need tactical help, or a shoulder to lean on.
What makes giving hard is that people don’t always ask for help, especially when it comes to non-monetary needs. And even if they do ask for help, they may not know what they need.
First, understand that different people need different things, even if they appear to be in the same situation. Look at the individual.
Second, be proactive: reach out to offer assistance to spare the person the shame associated with asking.
Third, recognize that you may need to stretch yourself in offering support to those in need, and practice the virtues of CARE: Compassion, Acceptance, Respect, and Empathy.
In the spirit of giving and receiving support, I’m asking for your help in spreading this message. If you found this valuable, please share it with others who you know would find value in it. By sharing this with others, you will be giving value to those you know and helping me gain visibility in my work. And it costs you nothing. Thank you!
As always, if you have reflections or responses, please share them in the comments. I love to read them and learn from your wisdom, and they provide value to the readers who visit this page in the future.
- The Complete Art Scroll Siddur, pocket edition, p. 358–359.
- There is a parallel here to a teaching from the Passover Haggadah. In the passage about the four sons, we read that for the son who does not know how to ask, “you shall open for him.” It is our job to open the path for those who are unable to ask for what they need. In that sentence, the pronoun “you” is in the feminine form, which doesn’t otherwise fit the context. My mother always taught us that this teaches us that the role of the mother, or the divine feminine, to educate the children. It is therefore fitting to see this theme echoed in the poem that pays tribute to the Jewish woman. ↩