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Complimentary Advice

 A gift idea that isn’t used often enough, and really, it should not be limited to Chanukah


Welcome to our Chanukah gift-giving guide.
We have already written that the Novominsker Rebbe once said that shochad, any form of bribery, is forbidden, with one exception. Giving a generous gift to a mechanech — even if it means he might therefore be more patient with your child — is not only allowed but recommended.
I was once a rebbi and I remember the Chanukah gift season well. All gifts are appreciated and the grateful message in a card goes a long way, but here is what your child’s rebbi/morah/teacher appreciates most of all.
It’s not:
Coffee mugs. This just means you didn’t try, and, l’maaseh, everyone who prefers to drink coffee out of a mug already has one.
Artwork. You may love the scene of the dancing chassidim with flying peyos in the shtetl, but they might not. Art is personal and it’s impossible to anticipate the tastes of another.
Scale. (This is based on a true story of a well-meaning father who bought his son’s rebbi a bathroom scale and set of fitness equipment.) Nope. Don’t do it. At best, it’s useless; at worst, offensive.
Homemade cookies are appropriate when your neighbor makes a simchah. Your child’s rebbi is makpid on yashan, though.
Did you guess what you need to give?
Right, money is money, and then they have the option of buying the fitness equipment themselves.
That’s as it pertains to the chinuch industry: There is no better way to show appreciation, nothing more useful, and no one to whom it’s more important to express thanks than our mechanchim.
But what about everyone else on your list?
I’m out of eitzos, but I do want to suggest a gift idea that isn’t used often enough, and really, it should not be limited to Chanukah.
Our community has a difficult relationship with compliments. We’re not really sure how to give them or how to accept them. It’s a complete processing failure.
Often, people start their compliment by saying, “I’m not trying to be choneif you, but….” Now, why is the disclaimer necessary? Why would words of praise only be offered as an attempt to flatter? Why, if you have something nice to tell others about themselves, would it not be natural to say it?
And there is the same awkwardness when it comes to receiving compliments. Heimish people seem to have a hard time just saying, “Thanks, I’m so glad you enjoyed the way I davened from the amud,” or, “Thanks so much, I’m happy you liked the soup, I enjoyed preparing it.” Instead, it’s, “Nah, I had a cold, it wasn’t great,” or, “Big deal, it’s just soup, anyone could do it.”
Why can’t we get it right?
Now, part of it, if you’re a certain age, is the fact that we were raised by a generation focused on ensuring that we not become baalei gaavah. To these people, an attitude of arrogance and conceit was the worst sort of curse. The result was an aversion to giving full-hearted compliments, and a generation that never learned how to receive them graciously.
Recently, I was sitting with people and someone mentioned the words of the Gemara, that “one who has pain in his head should immerse himself in learning Torah.” He delightedly shared a vort from his Polish zeide, who would tell him pshat in the Gemara.
“If you will try to learn, you will see that you don’t have a head at all, so then how can your head be hurting?” his grandfather would say.
I was nodding as he spoke, and so was everyone else.
“Yah, all of our grandfathers said that vort,” someone finally said, ruining his joy.
But it was true. That was the chinuch of the ’80s. Good, you learned; good, you davened; good, you behaved; but haltz zich klein, don’t get haughty.
Maybe it’s time for a mild shift.
Reb Shlomo Freifeld once speculated why it was that the Slabodka approach to mussar, that of gadlus ha’adam, the majesty of man, flourished in America through offshoots of that yeshivah, while the Novardok movement did not have that same success in the New World.
He suggested that Novardok is based on complete self-effacement, “and to be a gornisht, a nothing, one has to first be a zich, a something. In America, no one believes in their own self-worth.”
Perhaps in this day and age, a compliment or two wouldn’t be the worst thing. It gives people life.
Maybe this Chanukah, that’s a gift we can work on giving to the people around us. Not a trite, meaningless “you look great,” but something that requires more effort.
Rav Elya Brudny once told me that Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz was a virtuoso in the art of giving compliments, and he explained why it took genius. To tell someone he is good at something he doesn’t believe he is good at is a waste of time. It’s not a compliment. If I don’t believe that I’m a great musician, then your compliment will achieve nothing.
To compliment someone on a gift he already knows he has is equally a waste of time, because he is already confident in this area.
The “umnus,” the art of giving compliments, Reb Elya said, was to identify that area of talent that a person suspects he might have, but is still unsure about. Maybe I am a great cook / parent / musician / teacher / driver / etc., but maybe not. I have better moments and weaker moments. In that situation, a compliment delivered by the right person can help create a reality.
This Chanukah, look at your family, your friends, and your co-workers and find the words and the moment to give a genuine compliment — sincere, considered, and meaningful — words that will plant themselves in other people’s minds and bear fruit there.
Invest time in preparing the perfect compliment, and don’t get shy.
It might be one of the better Chanukah gifts they receive, the one they will treasure most, long after the others have grown boring or made their way to the give-away-before-Pesach pile.
Give compliments not instead of other gifts, but in addition to other gifts. You should also give other stuff, the expensive, useless stuff, the toys that need punkt the batteries you don’t have in your house even though you have two million other batteries rolling around.
And for the rebbeim, you know what to do.
Of course you do, you’re an amaaaazing person — you know that, right? The best!!
 (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 940)

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