We never know when we might be on the receiving end of giving. In spite of the rules of language and space, the two positions are not at opposite ends of a straight line. What we give is “a gift,” with giver and receiver in a simple point-A-to-point-B transaction. But, in fact, the transaction is not a straight line at all. Instead, it is a tidy circle. Imagine yourself with a gift to give; you are Point A. You offer your gift to Point B. It’s what happens next that bends the straight line into a circle.
“To give is to receive,” the saying goes. Giving, we are told, is a reward in itself, gratifying those who give with a sense of their own generosity. But in our version of the gesture, Point A’s gift to Point B triggers a return gift from Point B back to Point A. This second gift is the one we need to keep our eye on.
What is the first thing you say on your 16th birthday, right after you open Aunt Phoebe’s gift and find a purple and green sweater, size newborn, that she has knitted just for you? As we are all taught, we say, “Thank you, Aunt Phoebe. This is exactly what I wanted.” The sweater is totally unimportant. What matters is that Aunt Phoebe made the sweater for you. It is not dishonest to thank her. You really do appreciate that your aunt made a sweater just for you, and you owe it to Aunt Phoebe to tell her so.
To appreciate something requires that you calculate its value. To calculate the value of Aunt Phoebe’s sweater, you need to take the value of Aunt Phoebe herself and add it to the sweater. The sum is what you owe your aunt in return for the sweater. If your aunt is a good Point A, she’ll take payment in the form of your sincere affection.
Whether you keep the sweater or unravel it for some knitting project of your own really makes no difference. All that matters is that Aunt Phoebe made the sweater just for you. When you receive a gift, you give a gift in return. The rest is wrapping paper.
As you read this month’s issue of The Shofar, you will find several examples of gifts given and, we hope, gifts received in equal measure.