Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A World Without Gifts?

This, unlike much of the other material posted so far on this blog, was not a derashah; it’s just a thought which may, one day, make it into a speech…or not.

I plead guilty to the charge of humbuggery.

Presents beget the expectation of more presents; the more gifts my children receive from our relatives, the more they expect to receive tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. And so I have soured on the whole gift-giving phenomenon; I feel it spoils kids (and adults!), conditioning them to expect such favors incessantly.

Obviously, this is inspired somewhat by the just-past Chanukah celebration, but it applies year-round – birthdays, random visits from family, even lollipops in shul.

Still, I can’t go too far along those lines without remembering that Judaism revolves around gift-giving.

Avraham gives presents to the children of his concubines, and Yaakov gives Yosef a special tunic. Granted the tunic didn’t work out so well, it’s the thought that counts, right?

We give gifts of food on Purim, as prescribed in Megilat Esther. All year round we give gifts of tzedakah to those in need, and we also have a special mitzvah of tzedakah gifts on Purim.

Farmers are expected to provide מתנות עניים, gifts for the needy, from their fields – the Peah corner of the field, the gleanings, etc. All of us are expected to provide מתנות כהונה, gifts for Kohanim, from produce as well as from animals.

The gemara says one ought to give his family members gifts for each Yom Tov, to increase their holiday joy. The gemara even offers gift ideas – toys for kids, new clothes for women, and wine for men (but please, give non-alcoholic grape juice for those who are sensitive to wine!).

Part of our emphasis on gifts relates to social bonding – people feel close to those whom they have helped, and, per Rav Dessler in Michtav meiEliyahu, people feel close to those whom they have helped. (I believe strongly in this latter idea; this seems to me to be a function of a degree of cognitive dissonance. I helped them, they must be worthy of help and they must be close to me.)

But I think part of it is also a way to build up generosity toward HaShem. The korban is the ultimate gift, a way to “give to Gd,” if such a thing were possible. We offer something of our own to Gd, as a way to demonstrate love – and the more familiar we are with giving away something of our own, the more readily this act will come to us. This is somewhat reminiscent of the practice of honoring parents as a means to sensitize ourselves to honoring our Creator.

So I’ll live with the whole gift phenomenon, and muddle through it. But I really would be happier if my kids would learn to give – to friends and to Gd - rather than to receive.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice thought. One thing that we started with our kids (we have friends who have been doing this for years) is that on their birthdays they have to pick one gift the received and donate it to a worthy cause. (No reply expected)