THE BLOG

Finding the Present This Thanksgivukah

11/26/2013 04:54 pm ET | Updated Jan 26, 2014

We don't "do" Chanukah gifts. Our poor kids, right? Trust me, they are far from neglected. And they are used to it. We have never given gifts on Chanukah.

It started when they were little and we were living in Israel. No one there really gives presents at Chanukah. Small things such as gelt is traditionally given, as was the custom through the generations, but that is as a reward for Torah learning and to encourage the giving of charity. That is really about it.

On Chanukah we remember and recognize the miracles in our lives. It's about the power of the seemingly weak to overcome and succeed -- that the few can conquer the many. It's about knowing who we are, what our goal is and achieving it when the odds are stacked against us. It's a time to be thankful for what we already have. For example, we are forbidden from doing any work by the light of the menorah or to use that light for any other purpose than to watch it. We are required to simply sit and relish in its beauty.

Being present is the present of Chanukah.

But not giving gifts in Israel was a lot easier than when we returned to the States. Back here we had to become even more hard-core to combat holiday consumerism. I think not buying our children gifts was our way of drawing a very clear line that Chanukah is not the Jewish version of the Christian holiday season. We did not want there to be that gray area where around December we all just started exchanging presents, some in green and red wrapping paper, others in blue and white. And so, we decided that no-gift-giving was our family custom. And we have stuck with it.

As our children have grown from toddlers to teens, we are more grateful each year that this is the accepted norm for our household. There is no sense of competition or keeping up with the Cohen's for eight long days. If anything, no gift totally wins out over a not-up-to-par gift. There is simply nothing to compare. We just don't do gifts. End. Of. Story.

And this year we win. Sooner or later it had to happen. Okay, it may not again for another almost 80,000 years or so, but let me tell you just how much we are enjoying it now. I mean what better way to make our point about focusing on gratitude than to have Thanksgiving, the holiday of gratitude, take place as we prepare to light the menorah!

Chanukah and Thanksgiving don't just overlap. They intersect. A true Thanksgivukah.

Recognizing the miracles in our lives and being grateful go hand in hand. When we give thanks, when we are grateful for what we have, the appropriate response is to give to another who is in need. This is a lesson ingrained in Jewish philosophy, practice and law. Even the word most often translated as "charity" is a misnomer. The word "tzedakah" means "justice." It is not just nice to give, it is the right thing to do. It is what is just. When we receive, we should give in response. No matter how little we think we have, there is someone who has less.

We especially see this is in the Jewish legal precept called "maaser" which literally means 1/10th and is the automatic and immediate giving of 10 percent of our earnings to someone less fortunate. We don't give because we are being generous, rather that 10 percent was not ours to begin with. It belongs to someone else and we are just the conduit to deliver what is rightfully theirs.

This is likewise the message of Thanksgiving. We are grateful for what we have and we show our thanks by giving to someone less fortunate.

Chanukah is about remembering the miracle of how one, small flask of pure oil, which was only enough to last one night, lasted for eight. All it took was a small amount to make a huge difference. When it comes to charity we might wonder what kind of impact our seemingly small donation can make. My children often question this when given a $25 birthday check. Will their $2.50 really make a difference to someone? And the answer is always 'yes.' Even when we don't see it. Every penny matters. Just ask someone who needs it.

Think about the scenario: Someone is on the street. He has no family. No friends. No money. He is desperate and destitute and wondering if his life is even worth living. Then a small child walks by. He doesn't have much to give but he knows that a few dollars of his birthday check belong to someone else. And he gives it to this man in such an unfortunate prediction. The money won't solve his problems. But it will cover a hot cup of coffee. And that coffee will warm his body while the boy's gesture will warm his heart and soul. $2.50 is enough to buy hope. And that one positive action will lead to others. As that is what one step in the right direction does. The other foot is much more likely to follow.

On Chanukah we light one little candle the first night. It doesn't seem like much. But the next night we light that candle again and add another. We always want to add, even if step-by-step. By the end of Chanukah we have lit a total of 36 candles. Now that is a lot of light. And quite a jump from one just a week earlier. This is our reminder. Nothing is for nothing. Everything matters. And before we know it that seemingly insignificant action cumulatively can be something quite powerful.

This is what Thanksgivukah is all about. It's not about the presents. It's not about getting more but recognizing what we have and the power to give to others who truly need. And that is a gift in and of itself. It is the gift of recognition, of satisfaction of meaning and of purpose. And that is an experience we want our children to have, to integrate and to live.

So this Thanksgivukah let's recognize that we all have an incredible light within that only grows when we shine it outwards, and not only shine it but share it, so that it illuminates both our lives and the lives of those around us.

Happy Giving of Miracles!

Sara Esther Crispe is the Co-Director of Interinclusion as well as a writer and motivational speaker. She lives with her husband and four children in Merion, PA.