Asking for and Receiving Help: Strength or Weakness?

strengthOne of the most counter-intuitive truths to human existence is that asking for help is a sign of strength.  Why would someone strong need help?  Isn’t asking for help admitting to vulnerability, to lapses in judgment, to weakness?

The thing is, strength is not achieved or maintained independently, it is a product of living in community and relying on others.  Our modern world constantly sends us mixed messages and figuring out the layered meanings is an exhausting task.  For this and other reasons, we blithely accept the indoctrination of the American myth of independence and self-reliance, the Horatio Alger survive-and-overcome-the-odds-to-achieve-greatness stories.

The truth is far more complex, as it usually is.  The most successful among us will readily admit they didn’t do it alone; that they had help along the way.  Why then, is it so HARD to seek help when we need it, and accept it when offered?

This also, is rooted in our collective (somewhat askew) psyche.  We are notoriously bad at self-care and self-love.  The act of asking for and receiving assistance requires a level of self-awareness that can see that beyond the apparent admission of weakness there lies the strength gained of sharing both burdens and joys among friends, family, and community.

As will surprise no one (at least no one familiar with Jewish wisdom), Judaism tackled this issue eons ago and in a way we can learn from today.  Maimonides, a twelfth century Jewish scholar, proposed eight levels of charitable giving.  The lowest level is giving grudgingly, but the highest level is helping to “sustain a person before they become impoverished by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, or by extending a suitable loan, or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.”

A careful reading of this highest level of charity does not show the recipient asking for help.  Yet, how would the donor know that someone needed sustaining?  The answer is almost too obvious, we are tasked with offering help before it is needed in dire circumstances.  Our task, to live well in community is to seek out individuals and situations that could use help, not to find fault and denigrate, but to find opportunities to help.

But, what about the other side?  The recipient?  Our sages have wisdom for us here as well.  They teach, “if one cannot subsist unless he does receive tzedakah (charity), he should not hesitate to accept it.  If he be proud and refuses tzedakah, he is compared to one who takes his own life, and who to his sorrow adds a transgression.”  Have the guts to accept what is given, to use it and then when you are able to, to return the largesse to the community that has bolstered you.

And so, I urge you to be strong.  Be strong and ask for help when you need it.  Be strong and receive help with grace and kindness, and be strong for others and help them help themselves.

Rabbi Deborah Reichmann JD, MPH
Executive Director
Hebrew Free Loan Association of Greater Washington
www.hebrewfreeloandc.org