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Op-Ed: The Greatest Gift

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In an Op-Ed for The Times, the Chief Rabbi extolls the virtues of giving presents for the giver, who, through giving, can enhance their own life. He identifies a biblical precedent for gift-giving and suggests that the most meaningful gifts are transmitted values, rather than material objects.

The children’s wait is now over. The presents have been given with thought and affection.

Whilst most are enjoying their new gifts, many who were underwhelmed by the choices made by their loved ones have rushed to offload unwanted items online, almost as soon as they received them.

Gifts are as important for the giver as they are for the receiver. The more we give of ourselves, the more our lives are enhanced and ennobled.

An ancient Jewish teaching contrasts Israel’s two landlocked seas, the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. The former is famous for being one of the largest sweet water lakes, whilst the high salinity of the latter inhibits sea-life in its waters. The River Jordan, sourced at the Banias spring at the foot of Mount Hermon, flows into the Sea of Galilee. At the southernmost point of the sea, the Jordan re-emerges and its waters reach the Dead Sea, from which there is no outlet.

‘The more we give of ourselves, the more our lives are enhanced and ennobled’

The Sea of Galilee embodies generosity and giving, leading to sweet consequences. The Dead Sea, on the other hand, reminds us that taking alone will never lead to anything positive. Furthermore, the Sea of Galilee is harp-shaped (hence its name in Hebrew, Kinneret, meaning harp), representing the melodious joy associated with reciprocity. The intriguing name ‘Dead Sea’ conveys the message that existing only to receive is not an existence at all.

In this spirit, the Hebrew for love is ahava, derived from the root hav, meaning to give. A truly enriching relationship provides life-enhancing opportunities to give and share through selfless love.

A guest in the home of Mayer Amschel Rothschild of Frankfurt, the Eighteenth Century founder of the family dynasty, once turned to his host and enquired, with much chutzpah, “How much are you worth?” In reply, Rothschild took out a ledger with the word ‘Charity’ on it and started to tot up some figures. The surprised visitor exclaimed, “Perhaps you didn’t understand my question. I asked you what you have, not what you have given away”. Rothschild smiled and said, “I understood you perfectly well. When I die, I will leave all my material wealth behind. The only thing that I will, in truth, be able to take with me is the merit of that which I have given away. Consequently, all that I really possess is that which I give.”

One of the first references to gifts in the Bible relates to Abraham’s last will and testament. “And Abraham gave everything he had to Isaac. And to the children of his concubines, Abraham gave gifts” (Genesis 25:5-6). These verses seemingly contradict one another. If Abraham gave everything he had to Isaac, what was left to comprise the gifts for his other children?

Abraham gave Isaac all that meant everything to him – his identity, his values and his faith. To his other children he gave material gifts. Abraham gave the rest of his progeny something to live with, while to Isaac he gave something to live for.

‘The only thing that I will be able to take with me is the merit of that which I have given away’

Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, endured indescribable suffering in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Reflecting on the meaning of life after his experiences in The Unheard Cry For Meaning, he says, “For too long we have been dreaming a dream from which we are now waking up: the dream that if we just improve the socioeconomic situation of people, everything will be okay, people will become happy. The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.”

As parents we love showering presents upon our children. But the greatest gift of all is to empower our children to have meaning and fulfilment, through a life of values that transcends a hunger for materialistic gain. By endowing ‘everything’ we have to the next generation, we will not only give them something to live for, we will also provide them with the means to thrive in all of life’s circumstances.

Empowerment, unlike an unwanted gift, will never end up on eBay. As Viktor Frankl said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”