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Jewish World Review Dec. 22, 1999 /13 Teves, 5760

Don Feder

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We are the greatest
gift of all -- IN THIS SEASON of giving, it's easy to get wrapped up in brightly colored packages and elegant ribbons, and thereby miss the point entirely.

The American Express Retail Index reported that last year the average American spent $865 on Hanukkah or Christmas presents -- equal to the per capita gross domestic product of many Third World countries. Conspicuous beneficence?

We race around dodging suicide drivers in mall parking lots, being jostled at the checkout counter, coming close to collapsing under the strain of trying to get all of it done on time, wondering whether our heart's desire will be waiting for us under the tree, worrying if the gift we are giving a spouse or sweetheart is suitably lavish.

But the greatest gift we can give to others is ourselves. And the opportunity to give is the best present we can receive.

This brings to mind an episode of the old Twilight Zone series. Set at Christmas circa 1960, it stared Art Carney as a boozy, department-store Santa.

The ersatz Kriss Kringle, who's fired from his job for showing up late and loaded, explains that he lives in a poor neighborhood where (in Charles Dickens' words) want is keenly felt at this time of the year -- children long for that one special toy, families need food, fathers need jobs. So, to dull the pain of not being able to help when faced with this urgent demand, Santa imbibes.

Wandering through an alley, the jolly old souse stumbles upon a magical sack. Just by reaching in, he can produce whatever anyone requires. At the end, the bag is empty, and a friend remarks that Carney is the only one who didn't get something.

The hero smiles wistfully and replies that just being able to give was the only present he wanted, and he only wishes he could repeat the process every year.

You can guess the rest, can't you? In the last scene, there's a reindeer-powered sled and an elf waiting a whisk him away to the North Pole. He really is Santa Claus.

At the end of "A Christmas Carol," the reformed Ebenezer resolves to keep the spirit of Christmas all year long. Giving isn't something to be stored away with the tinsel and colored lights, or menorahs, and dusted off once a year.

There is a Jewish concept of "tikun olam" -- repairing the world. G-d needs us to help Him complete creation. By kindness to others, we emulate one of His divine attributes and raise the world to a higher spiritual plane.

We also express our gratitude for the miraculous gift of life He has bestowed on us -- a gift He renews daily.
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In her book, The Committed Life: Principles for Good Living from Our Timeless Past. Esther Jungreis, one of the most dynamic voices in contemporary Judaism, writes: "There are few things that make sense in our earthly existence, but that which makes life precious and worthwhile is the ability to give, to reach out to others, and to continue God's creative process. ... In our society we tend to associate giving with money, but more than money, we are called upon to give of ourselves." In terms of philanthropy, writing a check isn't exactly heavy lifting. Actually taking time out of our self-centered lives to talk and listen, to visit the sick, to comfort the bereaved, to share someone's sadness, to speak words of encouragement counts for infinitely more.

Like The Twilight Zone Santa, giving in the true spirit of generosity makes us feel good (produces an inner glow) because it appeals to our higher nature.

In a culture that screams "self" -- don't settle for less than you deserve, look out for number one, whoever dies with the most toys wins -- it's an affirmation of our real mission in this world: to help others.

It's also an inarticulate statement that our life means more than the clothes we wear, the car we drive and the electronic gadgets we collect. When we depart this existence, all of our beloved material possessions (the toys we've accumulated with such diligence) will be left behind to gather dust or make that inevitable trek to the yard sale.

All we will take with us are our good deeds -- the hand we extended, the tear we wiped away, the words we spoke, the words we listened to, the smile we bestowed. This is the true wealth of a lifetime of labor.

This is the real present under the tree.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest book is Who's Afraid of the Religious Right. Comment on his column by clicking here.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate