Often, when sitting with my students, I find myself asking them, "What do you want?" and then "What do you need?" The answer to both these questions inevitably is not the same. I have learned this the hard way, like many other lessons. While I may have wanted something from someone, when I was honest with myself I realized it was not necessarily what I needed. Or perhaps not that I needed at that exact moment.
Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, Reb Menachem Mendl of Vitebsk and Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi (three great Chasidic masters who lived in the second half of the 19th century) found themselves in a village that was struggling to find 5,000 rubles (about $1 million today) in ransom money for a member of the community that was taken hostage by the local nobleman.
The only person who had the means to free him was the rich man who lived on the top of a mountain. Reb Levi Yitzchak discovered that he had not been approached, because the villagers had given up on him. For years the rich man he had not given any tzedakah, hence no one even thought to request his help.
Reb Levi Yitzchak set out to knock on his door. Reb Menachem Mendl and Reb Shneur Zalman were at his heels protesting: "The locals haven't approached him because he hasn't given a ruble for years. You're wasting our time!"
The rich man greeted them with great joy, until he heared their request. "I am sorry," he said. "I cannot help you."
Reb Menachem Mendl and Reb Shneur Zalman glance at Reb Levi Yitzchak with an accusatory look.
"I'm sure," Reb Levi Yitzchak said, "if you dig deep into your heart you will find something to give us."
Reb Menachem Mendl and Reb Shneur Zalman stood in skepticism as the rich man disappeared into his study.
He returned moments later with a disgusting, filthy kopek (1/100th of a ruble). Reb Menachem Mendl and Reb Shneur Zalman were embarrassed at the sight and ready to leave.
Reb Levi Yitzchak, on the other hand, took the kopek and began to bless the rich man like never before. He praised the graciousness of his gift and greatness of his heart. Reb Menachem Mendl and Reb Shneur Zalman were beside themselves as they turned to go.
The rich man said, "Please wait, maybe I can do a bit more for you."
He disappeared and returned with another kopek -- a little less filthy, but nonetheless only one kopek.
Reb Levi Yitzchak didn't budge. He took the kopek and once again showered the rich man with blessings.
This continued for hours. At first another kopek and then another kopek. More and more blessings. Then, rubles began to manifest. More blessings. Slowly bills of 5, 10, 50, 100 rubles were being offered.
By daybreak Reb Levi Yitzchak, after using every blessing he could muster up from both heaven and earth, had the whole 5,000 rubles in his hand.
After witnessing this miraculous night, Reb Menachem Mendl and Reb Shneur Zalman cornered Reb Levi Yitzchak. "How did you know he would give you all the money considering the filthy kopek that he first brought out?"
Reb Levi Yitzchak smiled, "Do you know why the kopek was so filthy? He had been holding onto it for years. Every time some one would come to him for money he would bring it out, but no one would take it from him. He's been holding on to it for years, praying someone would take it. And when I did, there was room in his hand for another and another. The villagers came to him, asking for what they wanted and needed from him, but never once stopped to ask themselves what is he able to give them."
We too fall into this pit. Thinking of what we want and need from others without pausing to ask what it is that they are indeed able to offer us. And when we are not responded to in the way we want, or need for that matter, walls of pain, resentment and anger erect around us.
Our parsha, in defining the source of the offerings to be brought for the mishkan, the tabernacle, teaches us, "of every person, whose heart prompts them to give you shall take my offering" (Shemot 25:2). Bringing a gift that erects holy walls, that creates sacred space for the encounter with God and with other people, comes from one's heart. It is not ours to evaluate what another is able to give.
After my students answer my initial questions of what it is that they want and what it is they need in a given situation, I probe a bit deeper. "What is it that the other is able to give at this moment?"
There are indeed moments that we want $1 million from someone (maybe a week of their life) and we need $5,000 (a morning to spend with them), but from their heart they are able to share with us an hour, a cup of coffee.
Can we receive this gift with Reb Levi Yitzchak's eyes? Can we bestow gratitude and blessings upon that which is being offered to us? Can we respect and honor the murmurs of the heart of the other, as they manifest, to the best of their ability? Can we accept it as an offering of love?
Reb Mimi Feigelson is lecturer of rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.