Our culture is filled with stories about gifts wanted and unwanted, given willingly or unwillingly. This attention speaks to the fact that gift giving (and receiving!) can be anxiety provoking, and it’s no wonder since there doesn’t seem to be agreement about how to do it.
In my family, we shop for gifts without direction from the recipient, but in my friend’s family, they make lists of gifts they’d like to receive. This friend and I also have different approaches to wedding registries. I assume that couples register for things they genuinely want or need, so I buy off the registry instead of purchasing something else which they might not like. My friend thinks registries are for people who don’t know the couple that well. He feels perfectly comfortable ignoring the registry in favor of another gift he thinks will be more meaningful.
How do we make sense of all this? Do we do our families and friends a favor by telling them what we want? How much guidance are recipients entitled to give, and what obligation do gift givers have to follow that guidance? How much is too much? Ultimately, what is the point of gift giving and gift receiving?
For those looking for direction, Terumah, this week’s Torah portion, lays out one paradigm: “The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Tell the Children of Israel to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil...spices…lapis lazuli and other stones…’” (Ex. 25: 1-7).
From this, we can derive the following principles:
Take the recipient into account. What do they want or need? The gift should serve a purpose.
In the selection above, the gifts are to aid in the building of the mishkan, a massive and communally-supported task. Specific items are needed which, the text assumes, the givers will supply. The text doesn’t account for someone who gives something not specifically requested, seeming to suggest everyone gives off of the “wish list.” Yet, we all have seen someone receive a gift that is far from something the recipient might have wanted. Gift giving is an opportunity to check in with the future recipient before a gift is procured, to ensure that the gift is appropriate. Furthermore, whether a gift is an object or a contribution towards a desired experience, a gift shouldn’t end up in the trash or collecting dust. This doesn’t mean every gift has to be practical; a silly gift that makes someone laugh fulfills a purpose no less than new socks do.
It should be sincere and it should be in your price range.
The Torah provides a list of possible gifts, ranging from gold to thread, and from spices to gemstones. All are needed to build the mishkan, yet these represent a range of cost that makes giving accessible to anyone inclined to give a gift. From this, we see that giving shouldn’t be a competition to see who can give the most ostentatiously. The text insists on the willingness of the giver. An expensive gift that leaves the giver feeling bitter or resentful about the expense, can’t truly be a gift given from a person whose heart was moved to give it.
Torah reminds us that gift giving is about the recipient AND the giver. The needs and feelings of both should be taken into account before anyone starts shopping. If done wisely, however, both the recipient and the giver’s hearts will be moved. Giving done in this way, surely is a gift for God. JN
Rabbi Nicole Berne is Director of Youth Engagement at Congregation Beth Israel.