The Jewish Week: Chanukah and the Value of Giving Gifts
December 19, 2011
By Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz. This article first appeared in The Jewish Week on December 19, 2011.
I love to give and receive gifts. I enjoy the suspense of the unwrapping, the strengthened relationship that can emerge, and the opportunity to provide another with something new that they didn’t expect to receive. After all, life is about giving and giving gifts is just another way to fulfill our purpose.
This year, however, as I’m really struggling to decide how to approach my annual Chanukah gift buying, I’m pausing to consider how I can best raise my sensitivities to give better. I wonder how valuable it is to spend so many hours (and hundreds of dollars) shopping for gifts, only to find myself often feeling worse at the end of the day. Further, I’m turned off each year by the parts of our gift culture, such as aggressive competitiveness, that come with the holiday sales. This season, two of my favorite stories involve an alleged riot over $2 waffle irons at a Little Rock Wal-Mart and a pepper-spray attack over discounted Xbox games.
We can seek to repair how we give to others at the holiday time. The root of the Hebrew word for love (ahava) is hav, which means to give. When we give to another, we can come to love that individual more. This is why a parent generally loves a child more than the child can love the parent. When we allow others to give to us, we can allow them to love us.
We can release some of our holiday stress and anxiety when we remember that typically the pressure of what gifts we will buy comes from us and not from the receiver of the gifts. And so as receivers, it’s important for us to make a gift giver feel good about their giving. Dr. Ellen J. Langer, a Harvard psychology professor, explains that “If I don’t let you give me a gift, then I’m not encouraging you to think about me and think about things I like. I am preventing you from experiencing the joy of engaging in all those activities. You do people a disservice by not giving them the gift of giving.”
Psychologists say it is often the giver, rather than the recipient, who reaps the greatest gains from a gift and thus are also the most concerned about them. Researchers at Harvard and Stanford, Gino and Flynn, have found that givers are more concerned with giving something costly than receivers are with receiving them. Givers can worry less, and recipients can remind them to be less concerned with big gifts. A 2005 survey, conducted by the Center for a New American Dream, showed that four out of five Americans think the holidays are too materialistic. As receivers we can remind our loved ones that we don’t need or expect expensive gifts.
While embracing a culture of gifts is important there are certain dangers we must be sure to avoid. For example, the Torah looks down upon the desire for gifts: Proverbs (15:27), most poignantly, states, “Sonei matanot yichyeh – One who hates gifts will live long”. The gift-seeker is at risk for corruption and bribery, developing transactional relationships, and cultivating a personality of entitlement.
There is no such thing as a free lunch, and to expect one is to misunderstand the purpose of our existence, to live a life of service working to repair the world. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky explained that the Torah seeks to prevent us from growing accustomed to effortless profit. When one regularly receives gifts without investing any effort, one begins to expect more and more to receive that which doesn’t belong to them.
The Torah also teaches that, ultimately, it is not gifts that build or heal relationships; rather, it is human connection. Before Jacob encounters Esau after a period of estrangement, he sends his brother a large gift consisting of many animals. Esau is willing to rekindle the relationship but he initially turned the gifts down, showing that they were not the reason for his decision. He says, “I have plenty. My brother, let what you have remain yours” (Genesis 33:9). It is not gifts but words that truly heal relationships.
The manner in which we give requires great attention. Marcel Mauss, a 20th century French sociologist who wrote the classic work on gift exchange, explained that gift economies tend to be marked by three related obligations: the obligation to give, the obligation to accept, and the obligation to reciprocate. Some level of reciprocity can be expected but gift giving fails when it creates an oppressive sense of obligation, establishes hierarchies, or fosters humiliation or manipulation.
These dangers, however, should not dissuade us from the fact that gift giving, when done well, can serve to bring us closer together and provide a way for a giver to express additional love. We can all learn to have more sensitivity in how we give and receive. Giving gifts should bring us closer to the receiver and should be done in a way to reinforce the core values that serve as the foundation of our relationships. Givers should consider the needs and wants of receivers, and receivers should be sure to cultivate and express gratitude and not entitlement.
The Sema (Sefer Meirat Einayim), the classic commentator on the Choshen Mishpat, actually explains that according to the majority position, "sonei matanot yichyeh" (one who hates gifts will live long) does not pertain to a gift intended for the benefit of the giver. When gifts are used to help foster relationships and to further a culture of giving, everyone wins.
In today’s economic climate, few can afford to buy gifts the way they once could. We can make our consumption this holiday season more ethical by reducing costs, valuing the spiritual over excessive materialism, engaging in our shopping process respectfully and reconsidering how our giving brings us closer to others. We might also consider making our tzedakah contributions (financial gifts to those in need) more integral in the spirit of our holiday giving. We can attach words of gratitude to our gifts that deliberately celebrate our most important relationships. Rather than fight for the last toy on the shelf, we can strive to give better.
After all, this holiday is ultimately about something greater than gifts. While giving Chanukah gelt (chocolates) is an old custom from Europe, giving gifts on Chanukah is relatively new. Professor Jonathan Sarna, the great American Jewish historian at Brandeis University, explains that Jews used to exchange gifts only on Purim, but in the late 19th century there was a shift from Purim to Hanukkah when Christmas became more magnified. Some explain that Chanukah gift giving in America really took off in the 1950’s when, in a post-Holocaust age, Jews were more concerned with their assimilation in the face of “Christmas envy.” At the holiday’s core though, for decades we strived to dedicate time to celebrate life’s great miracles and to express gratitude for our existence. This surpasses the value of any tangible holiday gift.
This year, I hope and intend to spend less, put more thought in the gifts I give, cultivate and express more gratitude when I receive gifts, and allow the gift giving process to be a transformational vehicle to strengthen important relationships.