Shabbat Greetings

It’s that time of year. Nights are longer, and we are preparing to light up the darkness with the candles of our menorahs. Traditionally on Hanukkah, “gelt” (money) is distributed to children, but for many people, this is also the season to give the kind of gifts that come packaged in wrapping paper and ribbons. And so, in the spirit of “living with the times”—applying insights from the weekly Torah portion to our everyday lives—what can we learn from the portion Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23) about giving gifts?

We are told that Jacob loves his son Joseph—the first child of Jacob’s favored wife, Rachel—more than he loves his eleven other sons. So Jacob gives Joseph a special gift: a unique coat, woven in multicolored stripes. Seeing that Joseph is being given preferential treatment by their father, his brothers become jealous. They consider killing him, but instead throw him into a pit filled with scorpions and snakes, and then sell him to a band of traveling spice merchants headed for Egypt. In due time, Joseph becomes a servant in the household of one of Pharaoh’s highest officers. Gradually, he rises to a position of power—setting the stage for a historic chain of events to unfold when his brothers come to Egypt to find food and decide to settle there. One thing leads to another, and before you know it, the Jewish people end up as slaves to Pharaoh for hundreds of years. And to think, it all started with a father giving a gift to his son!

What are we to make of this? Is it wrong to give gifts? Of course not; everything that happened to Yosef took place for a reason, and was necessary in order for Jewish history to progress the way God intended, according to our tradition. Still, the story of Joseph’s coat is a compelling illustration of the way in which a single action—giving a gift—can create a domino effect as its consequences ripple through the lives of others.

A thoughtfully chosen gift brings joy to both the giver and the recipient. It is an expression of the bond between the two people. But gift-giving is a privilege and a responsibility. As we have seen, a gift can have powerful effects on others.

When you give someone a present, consider the consequences. Why did you choose this particular gift? What is its message? How do you expect the person to respond to it? Will your gift be appreciated? Will it cause jealousy or divisiveness among siblings or friends, or will it bring a feeling of closeness and unity? Is it purely materialistic? Does it have educational or spiritual significance and a deeper, more lasting value?

In our consumer-oriented society, giving holiday gifts has a way of taking on a life of its own. What is meant to be a pleasure often becomes a shopping frenzy instead. Today, we have more choices of merchandise than ever. Our mailboxes are stuffed with a new batch of catalogs every day. The Internet offers every imaginable item in every possible size and color, all at your fingertips with the click of a mouse. It can feel quite overwhelming.

On Hanukkah, we are celebrating the victory of the Maccabees over King Antiochus of Syria, who wanted us Jews to reject Judaism and worship pagan gods. Fortunately, we won that battle years ago. Now we need only live by its message—that Jews have a right to be different, and the obligation to stand up for what we believe in. We are blessed that we received the ultimate gift more than three thousand years ago: the Torah, which is God’s blueprint for a happy and productive life.

If we do choose to give gifts, we can do so consciously and meaningfully. We can take a cue from the story of Yosef, and strive to avoid causing jealousy by giving affordable gifts, giving sensitively, and refraining from flaunting the gifts we receive. We may give gifts that reflect who we are as Jews. Additionally, we can give of ourselves and our time. Furthermore, we can emphasize traditional aspects of the holiday other than gift-giving—the candles, the dreidels, even the latkes and doughnuts—and keep the focus of Hanukkah on our families, our friends, and our freedom. May the brightness of the Hanukkah lights help dispel the darkness of the world.