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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

The Reciprocity Principle

by Adam Cohen (Posted on August 4, 2022)
Topics: Devarim, Sefer Devarim, Torah

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Imagine you see a busker playing the violin in a train station. You give them money as you walk past and carry on with your day. But it is a shame in a way. Just 30 more seconds of your time and you could have taken this mitzvah to the next level. 30 more seconds of your time and your gift would have meant more to that busker than any other gift they received that day. So what happens during those extra 30 seconds? 

To understand this, let us consider HaShem’s logic when asking us to build the Mishkan, Keilim, and Menorah, and to light the Menorah ourselves. Rashi, writing on this week’s parsha, tells us that this was part of HaShem’s gift to the Jewish people in return for patiently dwelling on Mount Chorev (Rashi on Devarim 1:6)

This leads to an obvious question. Namely, how is this a reward?! Imagine your friend has a birthday coming up and you decide to give them a personalized gift. You work tirelessly on it and wait for your friend’s eyes to light up…only to find that they seem very unimpressed. It turns out they did not appreciate being given a list of ideas for how they could best serve you. On the surface, surely this is what HaShem has ‘gifted’ to the Jewish people? 

A midrash on this idea can perhaps shed light on HaShem’s mindset. It states:

“I do not need the light of the Menorah. Rather, I want to let you provide me with light as I did for you, to elevate you in the eyes of the nations, who will say that Israel provides light for God who provides light for all. A parable, to a sighted man and a blind man walking together. The sighted man said to the blind man- ‘Come, and I will support you,’ and thus the blind man walked. When they came to the house, the sighted man said to the blind man, ‘Go out and light the candle for me, so that you do not owe me a favor for accompanying you” (Bamidbar Rabbah 15)

When you give someone money, they are grateful but they also feel indebted. This is an idea in psychology known as the Reciprocity Principle. Ice cream stores take advantage of this principle by giving us a free taster, knowing we will struggle to walk out the door without buying ice cream in return. There is a lingering feeling of guilt when we receive a gift and do not have the opportunity to reciprocate. HaShem appreciates this sense of debt we feel to our creator and gives us Torah and mitzvot as an opportunity to give back.

So too in the case of the busker. Everything changes if you hang around for 30 seconds. You show the busker playing the violin that you genuinely appreciated his performance. You tell him how much you enjoyed it and only then give him the money. And in the process, you wipe away any sense of debt. You are exchanging gifts. He is giving you the gift of his music and you are giving him a financial gift in return. Another example is when someone thanks you for donating to their charity page. Why not respond by thanking them for the opportunity to give to such a worthwhile cause? You tell them you were looking for meaningful ways to spend your money and they gave you one. The point is that paradoxically, remarkably, the best way to give to others is not by giving. It is by exchanging in a way that allows the other person to feel validated that they have given you something in return. 

Shabbat shalom!