For Jews, gift-giving a burden and an opportunity

Congregational Beth Israel


There’s no denying it — from late November through late December, we think about gifts. Gifts we have been given by God the Creator. Gifts we have been given by friends, neighbors and co-workers. Gifts we need to buy for our children. Gifts that, especially this year, seem a bit too expensive but so hard to resist.
Whether Christmas or Kwanzaa, Eid al-Adha or the winter solstice, Las Posadas or Boxing Day, the moments to give are nearly endless.
For Jews, who celebrate Hanukkah in mid-December, gift-giving is a complex affair, both a burden and an opportunity.
The Hanukkah story is well-known. The holiday celebrates the victory in 165 BCE in of the scrappy band of Judah Macabee and his brothers over the Syrian overlord, Antiochus, and the Maccabees’ successful retaking of Jerusalem. According to the Talmud, when the Maccabees entered the Temple, which had been badly desecrated, they found only a single day’s supply of holy oil which was needed to cleanse the sacred space. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days until additional oil fit for sacred use in the Temple could be prepared. The lesson is that the combination of a miracle of the enduring oil — together with the courage, faith and strength of the Macabees, allowed Judaism to survive this perilous time.
For thousands of years, Jews have recalled the story — and message — of Hanukkah through a variety of traditions. For instance, each night, lighting one of eight candles in the menorah (candelabra) to recall the extra time the Jews had to prepare the oil. Or spinning a dreidel (a kind of top), to recall that during Antiochus’s reign when Jews secretly gathered to study the Torah, despite it being outlawed, they had a kind of toy top ready in case they heard solders approaching. If the soldiers appeared, they would hide the Torah and pretend to play with the top. It is even traditional to deep-fry doughnuts and other foods as a way to recall the abundance of the sacred oil!
Gift-giving, however, has never been a part of the 2000-year commemoration Hanukkah celebration. That has changed, however, over the past 50 or 60 years, mostly in North America, where Hanukkah falls close to Christmas, prompting many Jewish children to ask their parents what they will be getting this year! Unfortunately, those gifts sometimes become disconnected from the themes and message of Hanukkah.
Judaism doesn’t view this challenge as having a simple "yes" or "no" solution, but rather asks whether it is possible to find a way to give a gift consistent with the holiday or the teachings. Because, of course, one could interpret Hanukkah to be at its core a story about how God gave the Maccabees the gift of enough sacred time (enough oil) to restore the sacred space in the Temple.
This year, gift givers in Walla Walla have a helpful resource with which to address dilemmas like this one. Faith Communities for Sustainability, a network of about a dozen local congregations, has created a way to give gifts consistent with an understanding of our faiths’ instruction that we are put on earth to care for life and God’s creation.
The group has created a "catalogue" of five practical, locally-based, gifts that increase awareness of our stewardship responsibilities, reduce our carbon footprint, and contribute to a more just and sustainable world. Some of these special gifts include ticket books for Valley Transit, biodegradable diapers, compact fluorescent bulbs, and plots in Walla Walla’s new community garden. If you’d like more information, please see this website:
So, as we all recall the gifts we have been given and those we want to give — no matter what our faith — let us try to find ways to give them consistent with what this month is truly about: compassion, joy, charity and holiness.
Noah Leavitt is president of the board at Congregation Beth Israel in Walla Walla. You can e-mail him at Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should contact Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or by e-mail at /


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