Matanot Chinam–Free Gifts
Inspired by Sod Yesharim
Pesach 2023

ולהיות שהישועה מיציאת מצרים נקרא מרור יען שלא הי’ בזכות עבודת ישראל אלא כענין שנאמר (ישעי’ מ”ח) למעני למעני אעשה וגו’

And so it is, that our redemption from Egypt is called bitter, because it wasn’t earned by us through meritorious service. Rather [HaShem redeemed us for His sake, and we enjoyed its collateral benefit] as HaShem states through the prophet Isaiah: For my sake, for my sake I [will] do this/it. [Sod Yesharim, Layl Pesach, 35 and 36]

This teaching of the Sod Yesharim raises two questions: (1) Is there even such a thing as a truly free gift?  And, (2) if yes, then is it something that is appropriate to pray for. The Sod Yesharim seems to suggest, No. But why would that be? One possible answer is that it is a vestige of an earlier developmental stage that kabbala calls, yenika (or nursing), where a child receives its life support without needing to earn or reciprocate in any way. In the human life-cycle, as presented by kabbala, yenika gives way to gadlut, maturity, where (in its fullness and ideal expression) a person actually prefers a symmetrical reciprocity of giving and receiving as the Talmud states[1]:

A person prefers 1 measure of his own doing than 9 measures of another’s work. [BM 38a]

It seems that the phenomenon of relationship is the heart of creation, and that human’s are charged with perfecting its expression. And it seems that relationships have a lifecycle, and that the perfection of relationship, as expressed by the Ari, is for its parties to meet face-to-face and completely equal. Of course it is the nature of a lifecycle that behaviors appropriate to one stage of development, could be totally dysfunctional at a subsequent stage.

The human being starts off utterly dependent and effaced as an embryo in the womb of its mother. Kabbala calls this first stage, ibur meaning, literally fetus.  Next comes birth, when nursing begins. The child is now physically separate but still utterly dependent upon its parents who expect nothing from it, except, perhaps, to stop crying when its needs are met.

And then comes gadlut (maturity), which has many substages to it and basically includes the rest of one’s life. The person matures on all fronts: physically, emotionally and mentally. They actualize potential, acquire knowledge, engage in relationships and learn to take responsibility for their life.

And really, all three of these stages are symbolically present as stepping stones within the gadlut phase whose growth curve lasts a lifetime. On this scale:

Ibur describes the psychological state of absorption into the mindset, values and lifestyles of one’s social milieu. It’s a profoundly immature state where one’s individuality is subsumed by one’s peer group with its uniform “codes of conduct.”

Yenika describes the psychological state of always trying to get something for nothing.  Of ranking each relationship according to its bargain quotient, meaning what I can get from it and what must I “give” in order to “milk its benefits.” In the stage of yenika relationships are utilitarian, and the ideal is a “free lunch.”

The gadlut of gadlut, meaning the high end maturity of gadlut is the ideal of relationship, presented by the Ari, where parties meet “face to face (core to core) and completely equal. This implies that a mutuality of exchange is the most evolved model. Both parties give and receive, accept and reciprocate, need and earn.

Gifts are relational. They require at least two participants—a giver and receiver—and they produce a connection between them. The Talmud rules that a gift given with the condition that it be returned after use, is nevertheless a real gift, meaning a transfer of ownership does occur. The context of this teaching suggests that every gift can be viewed in this light, even when no actual condition was made. The idea being that, in order for the exchange to produce the greatest relational tikkun, one who receives a gift should take upon themselves a commitment to reciprocate with something of equivalent value, either to the giver or to an other relevant party. That way, the person turns what might have been a “free gift” into a symmetrical exchange that is more in line with the values of gadlut.

This is because the Jewish attitude toward gifts is actually quite ambivalent. The Rabbis ponder whether we should accept them at all since we are adjured to “hate them,” by King Solomon in Proverbs 15:27, “One who hates gifts shall live.” A scan of halachic literature concludes that accepting gifts is permitted but, ideally, best avoided.

We have seen that there is no actual prohibition of accepting free gifts, and the principle is a matter of middas chasidus, whose application depends on circumstances. Yet, we should certainly seek to internalize the idea that the love of gifts so common to our surroundings is not a positive trait. Refraining from their receipt, and certainly from jumping at every opportunity, can actually bring us much good.[2]

Returning to Pesach, and our unearned gift of redemption, the Komarna Rebbe notes that because of our insufficient merit the zivug (between the immanent and transcendent faces of Divinity) that generally accompanies a major act of providence such as yetziyat mitzrayim, did not occur. The Shekhina lacked the purity required to receive the Holy One.[3]

This lack of zivug accords with the Sod Yesharim’s characterization of our Pesach redemption as bittersweet—sweet because we were released, but bitter because we did not earn its bestowal and consequently there was no zivug. A person in the gadlut stage of life, who is on the receiving end of beneficences with no means of earning or reciprocating, will naturally feel some measure of discomfort which kabbala calls, bread of shame.

Yet the bitter impress of our Pesach redemption as characterized by the Sod Yesharim, becomes even more explicit when we widen our visual field to include the mysteries surrounding the 7th day of Pesach which are considered the most esoteric of the kabbalistic tradition. They revolve around a Zoharic teaching tale depicting events surrounding the Reed Sea’s parting which happened on the seventh day.[4] In brief:

The Zohar describes a gazelle that is pregnant and unable to deliver because her birth canal is too small to allow parturition. HaShem hears and arranges for her release.  A great serpent leaves the mountains of darkness and heads through the hills his mouth licking the dust.  He comes to this gazelle and bites her in that place two times. She opens and gives birth.

There are reams of pages commenting on this zoharic midrash. The most extensive of them is the Leshem, as far as I have seen.[5] I am extracting from his teaching only what is relevant to our topic at hand:

Kenesset Yisrael is the gazelle that is pregnant with all the lights of all the consciousness that Israel is going to manifest in their multimillennial lifespan, from their legendary Exodus till the end of time. Her smallness is her lack of merit in this precarious moment. The snakebite (says the Leshem) is the debt we incurred for the priceless gift of our yechida level of soul that we received as a matanat chinam on seder night, but that still must be earned, if not before the fact than after it. Apparently, all the mitzvot of the Jewish people throughout history as well as their sufferings, and particularly the blood libels that burble up around Pesach time, are paying off this debt.

There are three gifts that are only acquired through suffering.  They are the Land of Israel, the Torah and the world-to-come. [TB Brachot 5a]

This Talmudic Aggadah is informing us that HaShem’s gifts are not free. They are more like extended credit: receive now, pay later.

But we have no complaints. On Chag Pesach we say three Hallels. One in maariv, one that closes the Haggadah and one in shacharit. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you for our freedom.  Thank you for our peoplehood. Thank you for our yechida level of soul (our chelek Elokai) that enables the deepest possible devekut between ourselves and the Holy One.

Yes, it is an expensive gift, that can sometimes have a bitter tang. On the 7th night of Pesach we only say a half-Hallel.  It is the only chag where that is so. But we also know, in the depths of our soul, the it is the most precious gift in the universe to be part of the Jewish people and their holy mission. That is what we celebrate on Pesach.[6] Whatever it costs…it’s a bargain.

[1] ספר לשם שבו ואחלמה – הקדמות ושערים – שער ו פרק ו

כי עי”ז יהנה כ”א משלו מה שהכין לעצמו והוא משום כי עיקר הטובה וההנאה להאדם כאשר יהנה משלו דוקא וע”ד שאמרו ב”מ ל”ח אדם רוצה בקב שלו מתשעה קבין של חבירו [והסיבה בזה הוא משום סוד האחדות הגנוז בהעולם כי העולם משוכלל על סוד האחדות וכמו שיהיה בסוף תיקון האחרון והוא ג”כ היסוד הראשון שבה.

[2] Gifts and Halachah (

[3] Zohar Chai 3:48b. Leshem explains that every level experiences the level above it as absolute Ohr Ein Sof, even though it is nowhere close to the actual Ohr Ein Sof.  And so, at this stage in the Shekhina’s fallen state, she is represented by the final hei of Hashem’s name that has split into a dalet and vav. The dalet (from dal, meaning impoverished) has fallen and shattered. These are the sparks that we must raise. The vav stayed pegged up above in the Malchut of atzilut. This vav serves as the transcendent face of Divinity at this stage of development, even though it is really just the vav of the final hei (and not yet the actual vav of HaShem’s name itself).

[4] זהר בשלח נ”ב ב’, פינחס רמ”ט, משפטים קי”ט ב’, ויקהל רי”ט ב’, אחרי מות ס”ז ב’

[5] לשם שבו ואחלמה, הדע”ה, חלק ב’ ענף ב, דף 240 – 255

[6] See Rashi on Bereshit 6:6.

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