Can you give too much?

March 15th, 2017 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 12 comments

Question:

First I would like to say thank you for what you do.

My question is how much is too much when a Christian does good things for others? My mom does so much for people she knows and I am happy about that. But sometimes I feel like she overdoes it. 

I know the Bible say we should help, share and be there for others. How much is too much? 

M.

Answer: 

Dear M.,

Thank you for your thank you. We shortened your submission because it was actually three separate questions and we didn’t have room to answer all three. We  also can’t answer your question specifically for Christians, since that isn’t our sphere of knowledge. What we can do however, is share guidelines from ancient Jewish wisdom.

You don’t say why you think your mother overdoes her acts of kindness nor do you reveal your age. Are you a teenager at home who misses your mother because she is out of the house caring for others instead of sharing time with you? (Of course, adults can desire more time with their mothers as well.) Are you worried about an aging mother damaging her health because she takes care of others while ignoring her own physical needs? Are you concerned that your mother is depleting her bank account and will not be able to cover her rent or insurance payments or are you seeing your inheritance being given away and worried about that? Each of these is a different circumstance. Your concerns may be none of the above.  Without knowing, we’ll do our best to respond with general principles.

Sometimes it is easier to be kind to strangers than to our own families. Most of us felt this as kids when we always thought our friends’ parents were way cooler than ours. Loving humanity is easier than having patience with real human beings, especially ones to whom we are related and whose needs interfere with our own desires. Some women may involve themselves in charity work, convincing themselves that they are doing the right thing even though they are neglecting their own families in the process. Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches us that we humans find it far easier to do even hard things as a volunteer than to do even easy things that are our obligation.

In reality, what we wish to give to others is only available after we have first fulfilled our own obligations. Just as the IRS will not excuse you from paying your taxes if you explain that you’ve given that money away to good causes, we are obliged to take care of our own families first. Obviously, the tricky part is knowing where the line is. This isn’t an excuse for never volunteering or helping others. Neither does it mean continual servitude to a demanding family member.

If you feel neglected because of your mother’s benevolence to others, a conversation is in order. Your mother might be surprised to hear how much you need her and want to be with her.

A conversation would also be a good idea in all the other circumstances. If you are concerned for your mother’s health, specifics matter a great deal. We would caution that people who are givers and needed by others tend to thrive more than those who focus on themselves. If your mother slows down, she might very well harm her health more than help it.

Ancient Jewish wisdom does caution against giving so much financially that you cannot take care of yourself. As much as giving charity and tithing is promoted, there is also a warning against giving away too much, in most cases more than 20% of one’s income. Talking to a financial planner would be a very good idea in this case.

However, your mother’s money does belong to her. It can be hard to watch assets devalue, but parents do not have an obligation to leave wealth to children. Most parents do want to help their children, of course, and if you wish that your mother would think of you and your needs, then perhaps letting her know what you need now is a better idea than counting on an inheritance.

Without knowing the specifics of your personal situation, we can’t offer an authoritative response. However, in general, we humans have a hard time finding exactly the golden mean between two valid ideas: that we should be givers but that there is a concept of giving too much and/or unwisely. Life is challenging. One tip is to find your correct road by doing what we do in driving.  We don’t stare at the patch of road directly in front of our car.  Our eyes scan the more distant destination while they carefully absorb data from the left and the right.  When you know where the lane marker is on either side, your brain takes you down the safe middle. Similarly, writing down your goal along with the two extremes on either side, then gauging your golden mean by heading down the middle line isn’t a bad way to go.

Wishing you honest and loving conversations with happy outcomes,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

 

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12 comments

Max says:

This is a hard one because it can make family members feel they are attacking God. I lived this scenario with my ex-wife. It lead to divorce, her divorcing me, because I was not as committed as she was. There are times when you have to just allow a person to sink into the abyss, as it were, and stop worrying about their future. Be supportive if/when she needs it.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Hello Max–
If what you are saying is that you can only help those who wish to be helped, we agree with you.
Cordially
RDL

Mark Lampe says:

Hello Rabbi, this is an area where I’d love to comment, but as you have noted our friend has given us very little to go on. We know that God expects us to love our neighbor as ourselves and that leaves the door wide open for us to show as much selfless consideration for others as we feel that we can afford, some are more able than others. Jews and Christians alike come into the world barefoot and naked and we’re all going to leave that way and will take nothing with us other than the love we have shown for others in our lifetimes.

Susan Lapin says:

Mark, as soon as you say, “as we feel we can afford,” that allows our very flexible and elastic consciences and hearts to decide what we should do. That is why getting feedback from others we love and respect is important. It could be a small child wanting his mother to put him to bed instead of the babysitter since she is out volunteering every evening or a friend letting us know that we are more of a taker than a giver. There really wasn’t a lot of information in the question, but we felt that the discussion it raised was worthwhile.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

And, just to add to Susan, dear Mark,
While it is true we take nothing material with us on the great journey, we are able to bequeath possessions to our heirs.
Cordially
RDL

Curtis W. Cole says:

I believe at birth we were born with nothing, and at death we will be taking nothing into eternity. All has been Our Fathers and He has offered us the oppurtunity to be his Shepherds to go forth and share with those in need.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Curtis–
We are also enjoined to enjoy what we possess and worship in gratitude and happiness from all the good we have (Deut 24:47) . Just wanted to clarify that giving away to others is a positive commandment but in no way is it the prime purpose of possessing assets. We not only may but must enjoy them in happiness.
Cordially
RDL

Benjamin Davis says:

Hello Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin,
Your daily email and answers to the questions have been of great benefit, as well as many other materials my wife and I have read. Thank you,
I am curious about the “but parents do not have an obligation to leave wealth to children” statement. Given that your responses are based on sound ancient Jewish wisdom, how am I to understand Mishle 13:22? Thank you for providing this column reader with valued insight into “How the world really works.”

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Benjamin–
Thanks for writing and for your kind words. If a parent dies with assets, he should not disinherit his children unless there is a very good reason to do so. However, a person who gives away his assets during his life or someone who simply died without much to bequeath to heirs is not seen as flawed. In that sense, we meant there is no obligation to leave wealth. If a parent wants to stop working with just enough to live on but nothing to leave to his children, he is not viewed as in any way a bad person. The verse in Proverbs 13:22 describes both physical as well as spiritual assets. For instance, I didn’t receive much in the way of any material inheritance from my father however, what he did bequeath to me in the form of understanding and wisdom as well as training and teaching, was worth more than gold and silver would have been. Deuteronomy and Numbers both contain information on how to apportion assets to one’s heirs. But nobody is under any obligation to have assets to leave.
Hope that helps and may you not have to worry about these things for many, many years.
Cordially
RDL

H says:

Dear sir and madamme Lapin,

As a reaction to the mail.
The Lord told us we would work and eat by the sweat of our brow. So we shouldnt eye our parents possessions too much. The thing is when you are a big part that made it possible for your parents to work like if you worked in their company for a long time. Then that is not fair for them to leave you penniless because you contributed to them being able to thrive.

Its the same when your husband uses you to build his life, his house, his company, then kicks you out.

You have contributed to them having the comfort they have.

But you know, were not born to ”be comfortable”, were born to learn and grow, and sometimes having an inheritance or a huge marriage settlement can harm your growing in Gods will.

We have to understand that its not about the money, its about the lessons. This is hard. But God is in control.

Kind regards

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear H–
You’re right. God is in control. Just heard from a doctor who before doing a kidney transplant for his patient, he advised her to terminate her pregnancy and abort her baby. He told her that her kidney transplant was already high risk and with her being pregnant, the risks multiplied. She refused and told him to go ahead and do the transplant. It took, went very well and she had her baby. Twenty years went by and her kidney failed for the second time and she needed a new kidney. She called the doctor to tell him that she had just had another kidney transplant–and the donor was her daughter that she did not abort two decades earlier. Yes, God is in control. It sounds like you have gone through some tough times. I am sorry and hope all is now well with you.
Cordially
RDL

H says:

Dear sir and madamme Lapin,

Thank you so much for sharing this with me, it is so very encouraging. And just your response to me and seeing you engaging with other commenters is very inspiring. You must know that you touch many lives in a positive way but I just want to thank you for touching my life in a positive way, I eagerly wait for the new podcasts every week now. And I ordered business secrets from the Bible. God bless you and your household.

I am praying for a more positive mindset and trust in God. I’m trying to leave negativity behind and focus on what is ahead. I really appreciate eloquence when it is attached to sound teaching and you bring those together in a unique way. Just great. I have made it one of my goals to practice this more. I figure I can only forget the old if I focus on new goals.
Kind regards and thank you so much,
H

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