In recent years, I’ve heard a number of people talking about the origins of gift-giving on Chanukah, and how they assume it was a way of copying those around us who had a gift-giving practice in December. “Real Jews” they assure you, stick to Chanukah gelt, money.
Well, the origins of Chanukah gelt aren’t that clear, though there are several explanations given. One of them is that you’re not allowed to use the light of the candles, for example, to count money. Well, if we give you money and you DON’T count it by the candles’ light, then you’re showing respect for the mitzvah! I found that to be a cool explanation.
But what about the presents, the actual “things” we get? If it’s true that we simply acquired it from the non-Jews around us, shouldn’t someone make a protest and write a whole Teshuva about why we must stop it immediately? It’s possible people have done that and I just don’t know about it, but today I’d like to suggest a reason we give and get gifts on Chanukah.
Of course, you might be wondering at this point whether my title was intended for another topic. If I’m talking about Chanukah, then I shouldn’t be talking about hishtadlus, right? Well, I don’t see the conflict. Chashmonai and his family made their hishtadlus to fight against the Hellenization of our nation. Their demonstration of innovation and dedication led to tremendous unification and jubilation. (I could go on, but I won’t.)
But let me ask you: did Hashem need them to fight in order to drive out the Yevanim? Of course He didn’t. He already told us when we left Egypt, “Hashem yelachem lachem, v’atem tacharishun,” that we will sit by silently and witness Hashem fighting our battles. While we do our hishtadlus, making our efforts to do things, whatever we achieve – unless it’s in spiritual growth – is actually a gift from Hashem.
In Al HaNisim we acknowledge that it was Hashem, in His great mercy, who placed the Greeks in our hands and enabled us to beat them back. To me, that’s a good reason to give and receive gifts on Chanukah. You see, Chanukah is when we find that Hashem gives us gifts regardless of our efforts, hence the title of this piece.
I’d like to share a story to illustrate my point. I provide a business service, the exact details of which are not important here. Well, I had an old client I knew I could help again, and I’d make a nice profit for myself and my silent partners, two Talmidei Chachomim I’ve known for decades.
About a year and a half ago, I began reaching out. I sent e-mails about every five to six weeks. I reached out to the office staff, the business owners, and basically tried every various angle I could think of. While doing so, I was keenly aware not to try to do overly much hishtadlus. I reminded myself that Hashem is in charge of what I make. Eventually, I found out that there was new management, and after weeks of trying to get an introduction and then explaining my services to them, they were interested. Then I was told that the person I spoke to wasn’t the right person, and I had to speak to another. Two weeks later I did, and it took another two weeks for him to sign on.
Finally, after all the time and energy invested, I closed the deal. Anyone who heard what I’d done would be satisfied I did everything in my power to make the deal happen, and you’d agree I “earned” it. Then, we were having a discussion in shul about hishtadlus and I said, “While you make your hishtadlus, you have to remember that it’s Hashem Who makes the results, not your efforts.” I try to live that way but most people have a hard time reconciling it. It sounds good in theory, but it doesn’t work in the real world, right? Wrong.
The next afternoon I got a call from another old client. “Do you still…” he asked? I answered that I did and asked him to send me some documents. In about three hours, most of which I was busy davening Mincha, traveling, and taking care of other things, I had everything I needed to complete the deal, earning a nearly identical amount to the first deal. My hishtadlus was basically zero. In other words, Hashem sent me a gift.
The point I’m trying to make is that everything we get in life is a gift. When someone gives us a Chanukah present, we know we’ve done nothing for it. But it comes to us anyway. Chasidishe sefarim tell us that Chanukah is also final end of the Yemei HaDin. It’s not clear exactly why, but some say it’s because on Chanukah we celebrate our refusal to blend in and be like all the other nations of the world. That merit earns us a good judgment, so Hashem keeps the books open until we can gain that.
Like everything else, it’s a gift from Hashem, given with all the love and good will that only He can master. So maybe that’s why it’s precisely now that we remind ourselves that what we have isn’t because of what we’ve done, but because Someone really loves us. We practice giving and receiving to remember that it’s all a gift, and to appreciate Hashem’s kindness in every moment of the past, future – and present.
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