A couple of weeks ago, Oprah gave each person in her audience $1,000. But as they say, nothing is free, and so the money came with some strings attached. The $1,000 had to be spent on someone other than the audience member who received the money and their family.
Oprah’s gift was giving people the ability to give gifts; to feel needed. The results were astounding. The audience followed the instructions set by Oprah, and one after the other came back saying how this experience made them realize how amazing an experience giving can be.
This time of year, people like to get all self-righteous about the corrosive aspects of American consumerism. Others use Christmas and Hanukkah as an opportunity to mock what they see as the gross materialism of religion in American life.
Something profound gets lost in all that self-righteousness: While conspicuous consumerism remains a problem for all Americans, it has nothing to do with the essence of gift-giving that surrounds Hanukkah and Christmas. More than anything, else the gift-giving promoted by both religions is not meant to be self-centered but rather to teach people the beauty of giving to others.
What Oprah highlighted was the smile that emerges on both faces when someone gives something to another person. Gift-giving can mean just as much to the giver as to the recipient. Giving gifts allow people to feel needed.
We tend to look down at the person running out of Target with more bags in his hand than he can hold. We say to ourselves, is Hanukkah just about a new Xbox or iPod? Isn’t it something more spiritual, more holy, more divine?
To be sure, as Rabbi Waxman points out, gift-giving on Hanukkah is what Jews might call a “minhag America”–a custom developed not thousands of years ago but one that came about through our experience in United States. Some Jews try to downplay giving gifts saying its really a Christian custom adopted by acculturated American Jews. Those curmudgeons should do themselves a favor and before they start wagging their fingers take a look not at the person opening up his/her gift but the grandparent or friend that gave them the gift and the smile shining on their face.