Like most rabbis, I dislike the way so much of the focus of Chanuka shifts from the nerot, the lights, to the presents kids receive.
But I also know that giving, at any time, is a profound Jewish act. Last week during Shabbat evening services, we davvened in our small chapel. Usually one of the members passes around the wine and grape juice when it's time to sing the Kiddush. Sometimes when we're in the chapel, the tray is nearest to me and I carryng it around. Last Shabbat I felt a tremendous kavvanah, a spiritual focus, as I brought the tray around, stopped by each person or two, and extended the tray to them to take a small cup. In those couple of minutes, I felt that I was being given a great privilege. That I was fortunate to be the one that night to give a cup of something so sweet -- to have just a small moment of giving -- to each and every person in the room.
There is at least a small connection between Chanuka and giving. During Shabbat Chanuka, we always read from the story of Yosef. This week in Parashat Miketz, Yosef is elevated to the position of Pharaoh's vizier, his chief of staff, second in power only to Pharaoh. When famine strikes in Canaan, his brothers come down to Egypt for food. To procure food to bring home, they end up having to appear before Yosef, whom they don't recognize in his Egyptian clothing.
The twisting road of reconciliation between Yosef and his brothers is told, this week and next, through a series of acts of giving. The food that Yosef sends them home with, the coins that he hides in their bags.
The word in Hebrew for the food-provisions that the brothers seek is shever. The same word means "broken." How interesting! The brothers come to seek shever/provisions, and they land in front of the person they have the most shever/broken relationship with. In order for Yosef to find a way to forgive, and to bring the family back together, he has to transform the brokenness into giving. Initially, he uses giving as another power with which to manipulate his brothers. Eventually, Yosef's love for them and for his father will overcomes all the history, and he wants nothing more than to be together and to feed his family.
Giving is not instantly or automatically redemptive or healing. But on Chanuka, I just notice that giving is a part of Yosef's process of healing. It's a modality he has to use, and to learn how to use.
So too, gifts on Chanuka can be gratuitous, wasteful, spoiling, and over the top. Or, in the right proportion and with the right kavvanah or focus, the giving of gifts can be filled with love. For the giver, even more than the receiver, the act of giving a present is a moment to savor. With gratitude for being able to give something that sweetens the candlelighting even more. Giving gifts is not what Chanuka is about. But it too can be a moment of light.