Wednesday, July 15, 2020 -
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The toughest part of a favor: asking for it

For most people, and most of the time, there’s something a lot harder than doing a favor, or a chesed. That’s accepting a favor.

Rightly and repeatedly, we are told about the centrality of chesed — of putting oneself out for others.

If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: Judaism is built on doing favors for and helping others. You especially hear it in this season of the High Holidays, when all of us are looking for one more merit, one more good deed, one more mitzvah, that just might make the difference in G-d’s judgement.

We are urged to extend a loan, to watch a child, to visit the sick, to lend an empathetic ear, to send over a meal, to lend our car, to offer sound advice in the field of our expertise, etc. We are urged to perform these deeds by the Torah and by those who preach the Torah. We are told: Pay special attention to this before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

As well we should. “The world is built on chesed,” it says in Psalms 89:3.

It is true. But there is another side to chesed that is at least as important, and much harder to perform. That is facing up to the fact that sometimes we need a big favor, and we need  to ask for it.

Pride gets in the way. Everyone likes to feel independent. It is not always possible. Sometimes we need to swallow our pride, we need to ask, we need to put ourselves at the mercy of someone else.

I need a medical referral. I need money. I need to admit that my marriage is in trouble and must ask for a referral to a counselor. I need to admit that I cannot guide my child the way I want, but do not know where to turn, and must ask someone I hardly know at school, or must ask a neighbor I’m not too close to who might know about these things. My business is not going right, and I have to admit that it’s beyond my competence to fix it.

The person I could ask to help me with any of these things might well be someone it kills me to share my misfortune with.

Often, it is very tough to ask for a favor. Especially a serious favor.

It’s not just pride that makes it difficult. It’s this: By asking someone for a favor, I know I may very well be setting myself up for being asked to give a major favor in return. That is, I am putting myself in someone else’s debt.

It is certainly true that according to the Jewish Musar tradition, when one  is asked to do someone else a favor, one is not allowed to make this mental calculation: “He asked me; now I will be able to ask him.” Still worse: “He asked me; and I’m so glad he did, because I’ve needed to ask him for a favor for a long time but never had the opportunity. Now I can take advantage!”

True, while this kind of “one hand washes the other” type of thinking is not allowed by the Jewish Musar tradition, it often happens. It is a further obstacle to working up the courage to ask someone for a serious favor.

But even if you know that this exploitive response is just what is going to happen by asking a favor, when it is necessary to ask, we must ask.

It is hard to list all of the distortions and destructiveness that occur by not asking for a favor at the necessary time.

Marriages are lost.

Friendships are broken.

Businesses go under.

Critical medical treatment is not sought.

Children go off the path.

All along, we can easily congratulate ourselves on our independence, our not being dependent on others, our heroism, our dignity.

A very misplaced dignity, it is. A very incorrect understanding of heroism, it is.

The human race is interdependent, and is meant to be. No person can do everything himself, nor should he. We are meant to help others, and to be helped by others.

Yes, it is probably true that we could all do more chesed — extend more help to others. But given the well known teaching that the children of Abraham our Father, the paragon of chesed, are doers of chesed, it is probably a lot more true that we could all use  more encouragement in asking for a serious favor when we need one.

We could all use a lesson in swallowing our pride, in admitting that someone else out there can do something better than we can, or knows something that we do not, or has better connections than we do.

I am clearly not talking about the minor matters of the day, such as asking an acquaintance for $5 because you’ve only got a $20 bill, or asking for a cup of sugar from your neighbor because you ran out. I’m talking about the big things in life.

It is not enough always to be putting oneself out for others, as admirable, necessary and noble as that is. It is necessary also to be able to seek favor, to ask for it, when you need to.

In fact, sometimes it is toughest precisely for the biggest doer of favors to ask for one.

But, at times, we all need to. And we should. We should not be embarrassed. We are meant not only to help others, but to be helped by others.

The fact that the person we ask may come back at us to ask for a favor in return, perhaps even a bigger favor, must not deter us from asking.

This, too, is part of the preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. To be dependent on other people, when this is necessary, is tremendous training for being dependent on the Master of the World.

Copyright © 2010 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor |

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