WJW The Gift
"It is better to lavish gifts on the poor than to feast heavily or to give presents to one's friends. For there is no greater joy than bringing gladness to the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the convert."
Maimonides, Laws of Purim, 2:17
Millions of dollars are spent exchanging gifts that people don't like. This past week has been a retailer's nightmare: collecting, sorting and exchanging unwanted presents. To help the industry recover, Amazon just presented its latest patented development: a special computer program designed to help people receive the gifts they want. Those awful sweaters from Aunt Betty? Now you can preprogram your Amazon account to change any of Aunt Betty's gifts bought through them into instant gift cards. The best part? Amazon will send you notification of what Aunt Betty intended to get you so you can send a thank-you note for the original present while enjoying a gift you really wanted. Retailers say that this could revolutionize gift-giving. Sounds like a great solution to a perennial problem. It's a win- win. Isn't it?
It's a win-win for business but may be a lose-lose in the department of integrity and honesty, that dynamic duo of good character that places a premium on acts and intentions. What might Jewish law have to say? I don't know, but what immediately came to mind is a little known law in Leviticus (25:17): "Do not wrong one another, but fear your God for I am the Lord your God." Some translate "wrong one another" as "do not take advantage of one another."
The Talmud, in explicating this law, interprets this verse as a statement about language. It looks at ways in which we use words to deceive or hurt others: reminding them of a past they would rather forget, using words that have particular negative connotations to hurt others or assigning a cause for someone else's tragedy.
All of these are instances where we use words to oppress someone else emotionally. Yet, there is another example that this clause is extended to cover: using words to deceive people. In Jewish law, you are not supposed to invite someone to a party when you know they can't come. You look good, and you don't actually have to tolerate their company. You can't tell someone the best way to get somewhere by car when you actually want a lift to that very place and it's the long way. You can't buy someone a present from Walmart and put it in a box from Bloomingdales that makes you look like a big spender when you're really a cheapskate.
What do all these examples have on common? They all point to manipulating others in a self-serving way while looking good ourselves. We look more hospitable, more magnanimous, and more thoughtful than we really are - and we accomplish this through deceit. The biblical verse ends in a telling way: "but fear your God." Why God? In each of these instances no one will know where that present came from or is going to but you and God. If you live as if God is watching, you may be a bit more scrupulous.
The Amazon patent raises many interesting ethical questions and also a general question about human interchange. What is the role of a gift? It is odd that people drain their savings and spend weeks picking out gifts that are often exchanged the week after. Gift giving in our society has created many psychic and financial pressures: to get it right, to know exactly what another person wants and needs, to make the right impression. When gift-giving becomes less about pleasure and more about pressure, we've missed the point.
To stop the madness, we turn to Maimonides, that 12th century Jewish thinker, who writes above that we must lavish gifts on the poor rather than enjoy feasting and gift-giving among those who already have so much. Maimonides writes this in reference to holidays when it is all too easy to indulge ourselves. In this translation, he asks us not only to give to the poor - doling out the leftovers or the unwanted clothing that gets bagged and taken to second-hand stores. He asks us to lavish gifts on those who are truly needy to bring them joy. I'll be impressed when Amazon patents a way to make sure that the widow and the poor, the orphan and the convert get what they need from us - a gift card of goodness.