My kids are psyched. Tonight is the first night of Hanukah. Presents are hidden in my closet waiting to be revealed, one by one, over the course of the next eight evenings. At home we will play dreidel, win and lose chocolate gelt, light the candles in the menorah, and eat potato pancakes, called latkes. I’m not going to pretend it’s the magic of Christmas, but it’s all we’ve got and it works just fine for ginning up lots of excitement in our home.
As a parent, I enjoy this holiday. I like thinking up gifts for my kids, trying to mix up toys with experiences, such as tickets to a play, and stuff they actually need like long underwear and winter socks. When I was a kid during Hanukah, I remember my mother leaving the dinner table when we were done eating and going up to her closet where she kept the presents hidden. (Of course we knew where they were.) My brother, sister, and I would be squealing and laughing waiting for her to return. I remember the look on her face as she carried the presents down the stairs. She was having fun too.
Parents give to their children and it is a joy. To see their faces as they are handed a brightly wrapped box, its contents heavy or light, noisy or silent. To help (or not) as they rip and pull at the wrapping paper. To hear them show and tell each other what they got. It ends up being a gift to yourself of happiness.
While all of this is true, the presents sometimes leave me wondering if I am fostering a kind of greed in my children or at least the idea that things and stuff can make you happy. So every year we talk about cleaning out our extra toys and clothes and giving them to families that do not have as much as we do, and every year we do something along those lines. But so far it’s always felt like something I am doing to try instill in them a sense of how lucky they are and to ward off the possibility that they will grow up to be ungrateful jerks. It’s a token act.
This year I have been thinking about it in a different way. I want to give my kids a chance to give to others because it is good for them to practice generosity. In the Mussar tradition of Judaism, cultivating generosity is about becoming more open-handed (and open-hearted) towards the world. The act of giving influences the heart, or as one classic Mussar text puts it: External motions stimulate internal ones. In the book Everyday Holiness, it is explained like this:
Applied to generosity, the principle is that giving arouses the heart to love. By obligating ourselves to give according to rules and formula, we expose our hearts to repetitive acts of giving that leave their trace on our inner lives. The very act of giving itself ultimately makes us more charitable, merciful, and loving.
I read about this idea of imprinting on the heart a few months ago and since then have looked for opportunities for myself and my children to give. My youngest son now is the one who hands the dollar to the man who sells the Real Change newspaper outside of our local food store. And I always make sure my older son has a quarter to put in the tzedakah box at Sunday school. (Tzedakah is charity or giving of money for the benefit of others.)
My children probably do not feel generous when they do these acts. But Mussar teachers say that’s just fine. In Everyday Holiness it says, “The Mussar tradition’s guidance is this: by accustoming yourself to giving, and developing the habit of giving, eventually your heart will catch up and you will become more generous and loving by nature. ‘Our hearts follow our deeds,’ is how it is put in the thirteenth-century text Sefer ha’Chinuch (The Book of Instruction).”
Giving is not only about the exchange of money. It could be time or food or anything you have to offer to someone else. I haven’t decided yet how to present giving as a one of the eight gifts my children will receive this Hanukah. However I do it, I’m sure someday they’ll thank me.
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