Gifts

Reciprocity

Many seek favors from a ruler; everyone is the friend of a person who gives gifts.
— Proverbs 19:6

Get on line. Someone is giving out presents. The verse from Proverbs emphasizes gift-giving in the most superficial relationships. We ask for favors from people who are more powerful than we are. We wait for hand-outs from people who give gifts. We call these gift-givers friends, whether the gift is a physical object or a conferred status as a result of the friendship. But it's hardly a real friendship. 

French sociologist Marcel Mauss wrote one of the early and influential books on gift-giving in 1924 and claims that gift economies are marked by three related obligations: the obligation to give, to accept and to reciprocate. These obligations which drive the gift-giving cycle are typical in small, tight-knit groups like families and communities. Those intrigued by this topic might appreciate Lewis Hyde's more recent book, The Gift. In our verse from Proverbs, receiving alone will not create a bond. There has to be reciprocity for both sides to feel valued and equal partners.

Amanda Owen has a saying: "Receive everything." Owen wrote two books on the subject, The Power of Receiving and Born to Receive after observing how many clients in her counseling practice were giving a great deal but receiving much less in their relationships. She herself was victim of the same problem - a dilemma for which she blames herself: ". . . I also created relationships in which I gave much more than I got back and that left me feeling exhausted, resentful, and distressed. . . . The more I thought about receiving, the more I wondered why we are taught to denigrate 50 percent of every transaction." Our society praises giving but denigrates receiving because it seems selfish. But without healthy reciprocity we don't learn how to receive praise, gifts and favors with grace and maturity. 

When we are always giving and block ways for people to give back, we also minimize the capacity of others to give back. "Create a pathway for those you help to give back," she advised. Owen claims that this not only makes others feel like equals but also minimizes the stress we feel when giving-taking relationships are uneven: "Once you get used to people giving to you as much as you give to them and receive all of the benefits of a less stressful life, you will not consider putting yourself last."

This approach explains a remarkable Talmudic passage that appears in this past week's study cycle. A husband, in ancient Jewish law, has the right to nullify his wife's vows if she commits to something that would negatively impact him, herself or their marriage. He cannot, however, prevent her from doing an action that she perceives as suffering. A Talmudic sage then determines what suffering in this context means through an unusual interpretation of a biblical verse. "Rabbi Meir would say, what is the meaning of '...the living should take this to heart' (Ecclesiastes 7:2)? This means that one who eulogizes others when they die will in turn be eulogized when he himself dies; one who weeps for others will be wept for when he himself passes away; and one who buries others will himself be buried upon his passing," [BT Nedarim 83b].

The entire verse from Ecclesiastes is one we may recognize from the title of an Edith Wharton novel. "It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of mirth, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart." Visiting mourners puts life in perspective and helps us appreciate what we have. The Talmudic reading is that a man cannot prevent his wife from visiting mourners because it may cause her anxiety. She will fear that if she does not console mourners, no one will be there for her when she needs consolation. Being part of a community is recognizing that reciprocity matters. You can't expect the benefits of the community if you don't invest in it yourself.

A friend who volunteers in a Jewish home for seniors said that she goes weekly because one day she may be in the same position and wants to know that there will be people who will visit her. Initially, I thought this was odd, maybe even a selfish rather than selfless reason for volunteering. But then I came to understand that this friend deeply believes in the power of community and was - without guarantees - paying her moral down-payment on the future. 

As we approach the High Holiday season, it's a good time to think about volunteering for the new year and investing in a community that is invested in us.

Shabbat Shalom

The Gift

A gift is not complete until the item goes from the possession of the one who gives it into the possession of the one who receives the gift...”
— BT Nedarim 43a

Remember O. Henry's short story The Gift of the Magi ? It's a wonderful tale about the significance behind the gifts we give. Are they a trifle we give little thought to or are they a genuine sacrifice in which we take deep pleasure? Della scrimps and saves and then cuts and sells her long and beautiful hair to buy Jim a watch-fob for Christmas, while Jim sells his gold watch to buy Della combs for her beautiful long hair. They end up with expensive gifts that they each rendered useless in the immediate present. But they were, no doubt, buoyed by the love behind the sacrifices each made.

"...in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi." 

Gifts are an important way we show love, appreciation and interest in others. When someone pays particularly careful attention to our needs and this is reflected in a gift, we feel an emotional lift that may resurface every time we look at the gift or use it. The giver also experiences pleasure in seeking out the "perfect" gift and in the often altruistic motives behind the transaction. 

When we spend time picking out a present, we consider the needs and wants of someone else and journey outside the self. This alone can prove to be an existential relief and escape from too much self-absorption. There's the excitement we feel as we anticipate what the other person will think when he or she opens the wrapping and the satisfaction if we have done our job well. A thoughtful gift can cement and reinforce a relationship or connection between two people. In this way, the receiver gets when he gives.

These are all of the up-sides of giving. There are, however, many down-sides; gift-giving can become an emotional minefield. For the giver, there may be a lot of financial pressure when the gift one wants to buy or is expected to purchase is beyond one's means or the stress created at not getting the right gift. Sometimes a gift seems too generous and can create discomfort for the receiver. There may be "giver resentment" when the receiver does not express what we deem appropriate gratitude. The receiver may feel resentful or insulted when getting a gift that he or she feels is too skimpy or thoughtless. "I always wanted a sweater with one sleeve." "Thanks for the toaster. There's nothing I like better than a small appliance for our anniversary." "I really appreciate the gift card. It's so personal. Thanks for the errand" (Jim Gaffigan fans unite). 

In this week's Talmud study cycle, we come across the above statement, which seems odd at first glance. Of course, a gift is not a gift until it goes from the hands of the giver and into the hands of the receiver. And yet, the Talmud alerts us to the fact that this process of transmission may not always go smoothly. We may have every intention to give a gift and then life gets in the way. The receiver may be unable - for any number of reasons - to take ownership of the gift. There may be practical obstacles like time or distance or cost. And then there may be the emotional issues just mentioned. The giver may not be able to give freely and generously - like the person who gives you something and has to remind you repeatedly how much it costs or how hard it is to part with. And the receiver, for emotional reasons, may not be able to accept a gift with a full heart because he or she comes from a family or culture where gift giving is either more or less important than it is to the giver, like the aunt who hasn't forgiven you in twenty years because you didn't send a thank you note for a wedding present - even if it was a set of his and her matching pot holders. Sometimes, in making fun of an inappropriate or unwanted gift, we diminish the thought or person behind it.

There are so many hidden wants and insecurities around gift-giving that the Talmud, in its very simple language - stresses the importance of communication around a gift transaction on both sides. Think of the most special gift you ever got and the most special gift you ever gave. Focus, for a moment, not on the item but on the context and on all the other emotional factors that we may forget about when thick in the dance of giving and receiving. How can you become a more thoughtful giver and a more generous receiver?

Shabbat Shalom