Giving Sensibly

What we can learn from Nadav and Avihu.

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Thoughtful Offerings

Yet, we may also reason that the best kind of help is the kind that most closely aligns with people's needs. We see in humanitarian crises, again and again, that help without a directive can do more harm than good. One powerful example of this was the spontaneous outpouring of individual donations after the tragic tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands and left many more displaced, diseased, and destitute in southeast Asia in December 2004. Some of the unprecedented donations that flowed in after the disaster included things that were clearly of no use to the displaced and homeless in the hot, humid climate of southeast Asia, such as four-inch stilettos and wool blankets.

Other contributions seemed useful to well-meaning donors, but were out of touch with progress already made on the ground. Knowing that clean drinking water was urgently needed in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, donors kept sending heavy bottled water long after water purification systems had been set up by aid agencies.

The tragedy of Nadav and Avihu as refracted through Ibn Ezra's focus on commandedness versus volition can teach us something about our service to other people. It tells us, in a horrifyingly stark way, that we must not let generous motives get disconnected from the reality on the ground; that our modern "offerings" are best given thoughtfully in response to explicit needs.

As alien as the story of Nadav and Avihu may seem to us, the impulses that it addresses are human ones, familiar to each of us: the urge to quickly offer the help that we want to offer, regardless of what is needed. The harsh punishment meted out to Aaron's sons is not one that I would condone, but the seriousness with which Nadav and Avihu's very human impulses were checked should give us pause. It should compel us to make the effort to find out, from the people we seek to help, exactly what they need before we rush to give.

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Adina Gerver

Adina Gerver, a freelance writer and editor, is studying at the Advanced Scholars Program of the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. She has served as assistant director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning and program officer at the Covenant Foundation.