By Sarah Rochel Hewitt
Originally published in the National Jewish Outreach Program’s Bereshith Newsletter.
When I was five or six years old, my parents gave me a scarf for the eighth night of Chanukah. I can picture all of the candles alight on the kitchen table as my dad and brother went to the basement to shoot a game of pool and my mom followed shortly thereafter. Left alone in the kitchen, I sulked over the lousy final present. After all, shouldn’t the last night of Chanukah be the night reserved for the best present? I can honestly say, I don’t know exactly what I was thinking, but I do know that when my mom came upstairs a few minutes later she found me holding the box over the flames. Thank G-d, no damage was done to anything but the box (not even to the ugly scarf).
In our family, Chanukah was definitely about the presents. Blessed with generous parents, my brother and I received something on all eight nights. We waited anxiously for my father to return home from work so we could quickly eat dinner and begin our “Hot and Cold” search. In hindsight, perhaps the best part of the Chanukah gift giving custom was the many lessons I learned from it.
Anticipation is often the best part of exchanging gifts — something I discovered the hard way when I was probably around 10 years old. A few weeks before Chanukah, I stumbled across the place in the basement where my mother would stash the gifts. I knew what I had asked for and was delighted to see a wrapped box of just about the right size. Lo and behold, just my luck, a corner of the wrapping had come loose. Now what would you do? Of course I peeked. It was the Barbie Dream Van for which I had so fervently hoped. I was so happy, but I had no one with whom to share my excitement because no one could know that I knew. I certainly had great expectations of playing with it, but when I brought the large box to the table from its hiding spot that Chanukah, I felt something missing inside. There was no curiosity, no anticipation, no need to shake it to try and guess what was inside. I had spent my excitement before I even had the gift, and I am certain that my parents were well aware of my dampened level of excitement. I can honestly say that never again did I wish to peek at the presents ahead of time.
As we grew older, the family rules of Chanukah changed. Once we were in college, the “rule” became two presents for each person. And when my brother married, his wife was incorporated into the two-gift custom. Alas, I wish I could say that I was not, deep down, still that spoiled little girl who tried to burn her scarf. Truth be told, however, I was resentful of the fact that I now had to give gifts to four people, but was not receiving back as many as I gave. Married couples, of course, were allowed to give as one unit. So while I was buying two each for mom, dad, brother and sister-in-law, I was only receiving four, two from mom and dad and two from my brother and sister-in-law. (Now you do the math and tell me how that was fair!) Every year it was a struggle not to announce how cheated I felt on this deal.
By the time I graduated college, I had become more observant and had spent a year in Israel immersed in Jewish studies. Through my studies, I gained a new appreciation for the holiday of Chanukah. The word Chanukah shares the same root as the Hebrew word chinuch, education. The main mitzvah of Chanukah is to publicize the miracle. This is accomplished by lighting a menorah in a public area where others will see it. While I was not yet ready to forego exchanging gifts (Hey, I was a poor graduate student at the time!), I needed to incorporate my new understanding of Chanukah into the gift exchange. I therefore started my own personal custom of buying each person one book of Jewish content. Not only did giving Jewish books tie in to the real “theme” of Chanukah, but I also found myself excited at the prospect of choosing these presents.
It was only with the birth of my first niece that I can truly say that my inner gift giving spirit fully changed. There is nothing comparable to having a small child to spoil, especially when the toys then stay at someone else’s house. This change, however, was all encompassing. I began to thoroughly enjoy finding and giving gifts…and I worked at it. I tried to think about what each person would really want, not just what was cute or easy to find. On a highly limited budget, this was no easy task!
Judaism teaches us that if we wish to truly love someone, we must learn to give to them. This doesn’t mean that we should just bring them a cake or a bouquet of flowers, or do some random act of giving. In order to truly give to a person, you must really look at them and see what their needs and wants are. You need to try to understand them, an action that really connects you to them. Of course I already loved my family, but now I really feel in sync with them when I give them something I think they want.
Now I too am married and have my own children. My oldest child is 2 1/2 and quite old enough to be aware of receiving gifts. My husband and I are at a point in our lives where we must choose to establish our own family customs. Certainly we will continue the extended family gift exchange (which has now been modified to giving gifts just to the children). But what will we do in our own home? A gift each night? Probably not. But to take away all giving seems to me to be sacrificing a crucial element of childhood.
During my lifetime of Chanukahs, I have experienced a journey from selfish receiver to joyful giver. Indeed, now, I am often more excited to watch everyone else open their gifts than to open the gifts that I receive. And, because of that, I can now honestly apologize to my parents for ruining the surprise of my Barbie Dream Van.
Sarah Rochel Hewitt is the Publications Coordinator for the National Jewish Outreach Program and is the editor of Bereshith.
Bereshith is sent out 4 times a year (Chanukah, Pesach, Shavuot and Yomim Naarayim). The newsletter is for beginners and by beginners and they are ALWAYS looking for writers and articles.
Each issue contains 2 articles from people who are or were beginners, so if you want to write an article or have seen on on Beyond BT that you think is appropriate for beginners, please email Sarah Rochel at email@example.com.