When Giving Is Receiving

The latest research shows that “parents who prioritize their children’s well-being over their own are not only happier, but also derive more meaning in life from their child-rearing responsibilities.” This revelation, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, may prompt the oft-asked question: “For this they need to spend millions of dollars on scientific research?”

The answer to that rhetorical question is a non-rhetorical answer: Yes. Because, as the researchers also wrote: “These findings stand in contrast to claims in the popular media that prioritizing children’s well-being undermines parents’ well-being.”

There is a widely held belief in America today that parenting — or taking care of parents, for that matter — is a major stumbling block in the pursuit of happiness. Not only that, but sacrificing oneself to care for immediate relatives can be counterproductive and harmful. In other words, self-sacrifice could entail, well, giving up something — like sleep, peace and quiet, a luxury vacation, an executive career, even the company you prefer.

For many people this poses a truly agonizing dilemma. Some choose to make family their priority. Some don’t. And some try to have both, pursuing career and personal fulfillment while giving their children “quality time,” and the rest of the time leaving them to a gallery of caregivers: babysitters, daycare centers, au pairs, governesses, nannies — or their own latchkeys.

Care for elderly parents is also all-too- often left in the hands of total strangers with varying levels of devotion and expertise.

Of course, often there is little choice. Financial pressures — not the least of which includes paying for tuition and health care for one’s children — commonly make it necessary for both parents to work, and make it impossible for them to be with their children or their parents as much as they wish to be. This, too, is self-sacrifice: doing what is necessary to sustain one’s family, even if it means being away from the very loved ones for whom you’re working. When that is the case, carefully selected caregivers are a must.

But that is not the question being addressed by the academics. What they want to know is: If given a choice, are relatives worth it?

Although the answer they came up with is affirmative, we should not be deceived by it. It still reflects the priority of priorities: the Self. One’s own well-being, happiness and sense of meaning are the ultimate goals in this mindset: Giving, maybe — but for the sake of getting.

The Torah approach is the polar opposite: Giving is the greatest privilege of all. Every moment that one merits to care for a parent, one fulfills the lofty mitzvah of kibbud av va’eim — one of the aseres hadibros. It is also an opportunity to show gratitude to parents for all they did for us, and hakaras hatov is a fundamental tenet of our hashkafah.

Caring for children is a lofty act of righteousness and chessed.

Both can be challenging at times, a factor that only increases the merit accrued through these acts.

But it isn’t only towards immediate relatives that giving is, in reality, getting. Sifrei mussar explain that arvus is recognition of an immutable fact: All of Klal Yisrael is bound together. In essence, we are one.

When a man falls and hurts his leg, his entire body feels the pain of the injured limb. It would never occur to him to blame the brain or perhaps the eyes for what has occurred; instead, instinctively, the entire body seeks ways to alleviate the pain. On a certain level we are all part of a single spiritual entity and therefore obligated to be concerned for one another much as we are instinctively concerned for ourselves.

The Rebbe Reb Yonasan Eibschutz, zt”l, points out that virtually all our tefillos are in the plural. We ask Hashem to heal “us,” to grant “us” prosperity, to listen to “our” tefillos. This is because we are required to daven not only for ourselves and our family and friends, but for all of Am Yisrael.

This is true regarding the physical and material needs of our fellow Jews, as the old saying goes: “Zayn gashmiyus iz dayn ruchniyus!” [His physical needs are your spiritual avodah.] This includes practical efforts, as well as davening for another Yid’s physical and financial well-being.