A funny thing happened to me this week.
The older of our two cars, a 2007 Toyota, was parked in front of our home in Squirrel Hill on Tuesday night. Judy went out on Wednesday morning, started up the car, and was absolutely freaked out by a fearful roar of the engine. It sounded like the muffler had fallen off.
But no. As it turns out, some enterprising thief or thieves had gotten underneath the car and stolen the catalytic converter, which is apparently a 10-minute job that is worth it for the expensive metals, particularly platinum, found inside of it.
OK, so this is annoying for a whole bunch of reasons, as I am sure you can imagine. But let’s face it: a car, while essential for getting from place to place, is an expensive hunk of metal. Despite the fact that this vehicle was my first major purchase after completing rabbinical school, I do not have any particular affection or nostalgia for it. At some point, I’ll probably have to replace it with something that will look and feel a lot nicer, at least for a little while. I consider myself fortunate in that I can afford two cars.
But I had a fairly spartan childhood, growing up in rural New England. In my family, we almost never received Ḥanukkah gifts – for us, gift-giving was something that non-Jews did in December, and there was a clear, almost rabbinic opinion in my family that Ḥanukkah had nothing to do with Christmas, and that “giving in” to gift-giving was like celebrating Christmas. It just did not feel appropriate.
So I suffered in resentful silence as my friends (virtually all of whom were not Jewish) received the newest, coolest toys, and all I got was a few pieces of chocolate wrapped in gold foil, and, if we were lucky, a few homemade latkes served with applesauce.
Truth is, my parents were experts at not buying stuff. We were all skilled in the art of re-using and recycling, way before it was cool, and turning the junk of others into our own treasure. Here is some true Adelson Family folklore:
Where we grew up, there was no municipal garbage pickup. We had to drive our garbage to the landfill (known affectionately as “the dump”) and actually toss it onto the pile, where it would soon be covered with soil. I’ll never forget the smell, which was not pleasant.
But the dump was fun in other ways – there was a recycling area where you could pick through the discarded periodicals of others, and also a spot where you could find large items that some considered garbage; but for us it was an opportunity to find slightly imperfect appliances and furniture at a VERY reasonable cost. So sometimes we came back from the dump with more stuff.
When my mother sensed that a critical mass of our household refuse had amassed in the garage, she would say, “Lennie, it’s time to go to the dump.” And my father would say, “Why? Whaddaya need?”
Now, with the anti-materialist deprivations of my childhood far behind me, I feel like I have too much stuff. I’ve got a whole house full of it. And, as I am sure is the case with many of you as well, most of it we almost never use.
As a society, of course, we think a lot about buying stuff at this time of year: the sales, the holiday pitches, family get-togethers, etc. Black Friday, the day when retail businesses go into the black, is coming up this week. And let’s face it: right now, supply-chain issues aside, the US economy needs a boost. (And perhaps some booster shots, as well!)
So it caught my eye that in Parashat Vayyishlaḥ, there is a particularly significant episode of gift-giving. Our hero Ya’aqov, preparing for being reunited with his brother Esav 20 years after effectively stealing their father Yitzḥaq’s blessing and fleeing, is expecting the worst. He assumes that Esav is still angry, and he has heard that Esav is coming with 400 men. So what does Ya’aqov do to attempt to head off a potentially deadly confrontation? He sends gifts: 550 animals – goats, sheep, camels, and even donkeys.
His reasoning is stated in the Torah (Bereshit / Genesis 32:21):
אֲכַפְּרָ֣ה פָנָ֗יו בַּמִּנְחָה֙ הַהֹלֶ֣כֶת לְפָנָ֔י וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵן֙ אֶרְאֶ֣ה פָנָ֔יו אוּלַ֖י יִשָּׂ֥א פָנָֽי׃
If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him; perhaps he will show me favor.
This is very interesting verse for a number of reasons:
- The use of term minḥah, which we think of as meaning, “the afternoon service,” although here we reveal its original meaning, “offering.” (When the Temple was functioning in Jerusalem, prior to its second and final destruction by the Romans in the year 70 CE, the minḥah sacrifice was the daily offering in the afternoon.)
- There are four idioms containing the root peh-nun-yod, meaning “face,” which is clearly a leitwort / thematic word of this chapter. The root also appears in the place name Peni-el, literally “face of God,” where Ya’aqov has the wrestling match with the angel.
- One of those idioms is akhapperah fanav baminḥah, which is hard to translate. Our translation says, “If I propitiate him with presents,” although the verb here is to atone. Ya’aqov seeks to “atone to his face,” or something similar.
Ya’aqov knows, as we all do, that people like gifts. Giving a gift tells the recipient, I care. I love you. I am concerned with your welfare. Or, in this case, I’m sorry for what I did to you 20 years ago. I am atoning to your face.
But gifts can also be a kind of shortcut, an attempt to say something meaningful without actually saying it!
In recent years, since there is so much more shopping that happens online, we have not heard about the Black Friday debacles that have happened in the past: people lining up all night, and stampeding when stores open, to get to the heavily discounted holiday gift items. You may recall that there was a Walmart employee who was trampled to death on Long Island about a decade ago. So thank God that sort of thing isn’t happening right now.
We like having stuff! Ya’aqov liked stuff too – he left his father-in-law Laban’s house with all the best animals. The offspring of that hand-picked herd, the unnaturally-selected cream of the woolly crop, was delivered to Esav to ameliorate him, because Ya’aqov assumed that his brother also liked having new stuff.
But really, the problem here is that gifts do not necessarily resolve long-standing estrangements. Gifts do not even solve simple disputes. They might make the recipient more willing to talk to the giver, and perhaps lighten the mood. But the issues are still there.
Perhaps Ya’aqov made his offering under the misguided notion that it would right past wrongs. Perhaps he feared Esav so much that he was unable to “atone to his face” verbally, to ask for forgiveness, to apologize, to try to make amends. So he gave him a whole pasture-full of ruminants.
And the plan may not have even worked! When the brothers meet, in the following chapter, Esav runs to greet Ya’aqov, kisses him, and immediately declines the gifts. “יֶשׁ־לִ֣י רָ֑ב אָחִ֕י יְהִ֥י לְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁר־לָֽךְ׃,” says Esav. “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.” I don’t need your charity.
Radaq, Rabbi David Qimḥi, writing in Provence in the 12th-13th c., says that Esav realizes in that moment that he has abased himself, and is filled with compassion for Ya’aqov and genuinely forgave his brother. Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, 15th-16th c. Italy, tells us that this change happens when Esav sees his brother; it is only when they see each other face-to-face that all is forgiven.
Ya’aqov fails the key test: instead of actually seeking forgiveness through reaching out to his brother, he tries to buy him off with gifts. Ironically, the true hero in this case is Esav; he is filled with compassion, not moved by gifts. He didn’t need more stuff.
What is more valuable than material goods? Genuine, true expressions of love. Honesty, compassion, sympathy, and earnest attempts to forgive those from whom we are estranged. Showing our faces.
We read in the Talmud, Massekhet Shabbat,
These are the things which people may do and thus enjoy their fruits in this world, while the principal of the investment remains for the world to come: honoring one’s parents, the practice of loving deeds, and making peace between people, and the study of the Torah surpasses them all.
The most valuable gifts we can give are not tangible; they are expressions of love and compassion. Material goods might make us momentarily happy; but personal investment in our relationships and knowledge will pay off throughout this lifetime, and the next.
So don’t worry about the supply-chain issues. What your family and friends and maybe even estranged relatives need is for you to reach out and tell them how much you love them, how much you appreciate them, and how much you care. They don’t need more stuff; they need to see your face. They need you.
A joyous Thanksgiving to you and yours, and may you have a happy, illuminating Ḥanukkah!
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 11/20/2021.)