| To Be Honest |

Presenting Issue  

Maybe gift-giving evens out the score. But why are we even keeping track?

MY sister called me last week to help her friend find a babysitter.

She was flying in with her baby for a close friend’s chasunah, and her childcare arrangements had fallen through at the last minute. Did I know anyone who could babysit?

With two teenage daughters, you’d think it would be a breeze, but it was finals season, and neither was able to free the evening. I offered to have the baby in my house anyway. I have kids of all ages, and I figured that between us this would be a manageable chesed.

The night was smooth sailing. My six-year-old fell in love with the baby and pushed the Doona around all evening. The baby fell asleep soon after she came, and we didn’t hear from her again all night.

When her mother came to pick her up and tried to pay the babysitter, I wouldn’t hear of it. Who was she going to pay? My teenagers, who were upstairs laughing uproariously, ostensibly studying? My six-year-old, who was thrilled with her real live doll? Or was she going to pay me rent for allowing her Doona to take up space in my dining room?

She thanked me for being a lifesaver and I smiled, glad that I was able to help someone out so easily.

And that was the end of the story.

Or so I thought.

This week, I opened the mailbox and saw a thank-you card. I smiled. Some people really know how to show hakaras hatov, I mused. She must have had good chinuch; I’m still trying to get my boys to finish their bar mitzvah thank-you notes! Then I opened the envelope and a gift card fell out.

I frowned. Why did she think she needed to pay me for the small chesed I did for her? I was happy to help out, and it was really no skin off my back. Not every favor needs to be repaid with a gift. Isn’t the desire to do chesed one of the hallmarks of a Yid? Wouldn’t she do this for me if the tables were turned?

On the other hand, I get it. A while ago, I met with the principal of my daughter’s school, and she gave me over an hour of her time to discuss some pressing concerns. Her insights were invaluable, and she clearly had my daughter’s best interests at heart. The conversation and experience were both very meaningful to me.

I wrote her a heartfelt note expressing my feelings. But it felt puny. What was a note without a gift? I bought a Waterdale Collection napkin holder and brought it over.

Don’t get me wrong. I was happy to give her a present. She helped me, and I was grateful. What bothered me was that I felt conditioned to believe that a note without a gift is meaningless.

This is not to mitigate the importance of showing appreciation. Hakaras hatov is also one of the marks of a Yid. We need to recognize when others do good for us, acknowledge it, and thank them.

I look at generous, giving people, and I’m inspired by them. When I read about Rebbetzin Kanievksy or Henny Machlis and I hear how they loved people, loved making others happy, and loved giving to others, I wish I were like that, too. I am not naturally generous. But I want to be a person who is overflowing with love and happiness, and so I look for opportunities to give to others and bring happiness to them. When I see others giving, I try to adopt their methods so that I can train myself to be a giver. I have a friend who sends in a Rosh Chodesh treat to her little kids’ morahs each month, and I learned from her; I now send in a chocolate bar any time my children are chosen as Shabbos Mommy or Tatty.

But here’s the thing: I want to give as an expression of love, not to fulfill a societal expectation.

And that’s why I’m stymied by society’s expectation that hakaras hatov for favors will be accompanied by a gift.

I wonder how this developed. Is it from the pervasive commercialization of everything in our lives? We’ve been conditioned to believe that every thank-you note needs something tangible attached. Every Yom Tov has become an occasion for a gift.

I see it on the receiving end as well. As an employee, I’ve learned to expect a gift each Yom Tov. But it’s become so standard, it’s almost meaningless. I literally have to remind myself to say thank you, to remember that this is not part of my paycheck. What is the point of the gift, then, if the recipient is expecting it?

Of course, there are certain times when a gift seems almost obvious. When we host children for Shabbos, and they come with Shabbos party or a new game or book, it is so much easier to develop friendly relations among the host and guest children. But there are other times when the gift is so unnecessary and almost a waste. If I’m hosting your teenaged sleeping company, I can do it even without the bottle of wine. I want to do it even without the bottle of wine.

Then there are the teachers and rebbeim. We all know they are overworked and underpaid. Any time we can show them extra appreciation, we should. Certainly, when we feel that they have overextended themselves, and our hakaras hatov spills over to a gift, there is something beautiful in that. There have been years when I have been able to buy flowers and hand-deliver them to each of my children’s teachers before Yom Tov. It made me so happy; nothing feels as good as giving. But then there are other years when I write thank-you notes to my children’s teachers and have to bite my tongue so as not to apologize for the missing check.

When we do not have the means, our sincere thank-you can and should be enough.

Maybe it’s not about commercialization. Maybe it’s something else. It’s hard to be on the receiving end of favors. We want to be independent and self-sufficient; we don’t want to rely on others. We would rather be givers than takers. I wonder: When we buy a gift after someone does us a favor, are we trying to get back into the role of giver? Are we subconsciously thinking, You gave to me, but I don’t owe you anything, because I gave you something back?

Yes, maybe gift-giving evens out the score. But why are we even keeping track? We Yidden are brothers and sisters. Of course we help each other out.

I also wonder how this gifting dynamic affects our attitude toward chesed in general. Gifts are by definition extra, and the expectation that every chesed will be repaid with a gift can make chesed seem optional, too. But it isn’t! Chesed is what Yidden do. It’s what holds up the world.

We have a lot on our plate, and juggling our commitments can be overwhelming. When a chesed opportunity presents itself, we can justify our no pretty easily. We cannot host guests for Shabbos if we had a hard week at work, we don’t want to move our children to set up a makeshift guest room. But if our attitude was that chesed is a mitzvah — a commandment — the same way that keeping kosher or shaking a lulav is, would we extend ourselves more?

Let’s teach ourselves and our kids to do chesed and think about others. Even with all their social and studying obligations, our kids have plenty of time on their hands. They can learn to do favors for others even if it is inconvenient. We can teach our teens to accept babysitting jobs even when they don’t want to, just to help someone out. And sometimes, for new mothers, or family members, they can help out without getting paid or overloaded with nosh.

Can we do favors without expectations and accept favors with grace?


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 857)

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