…He who spurns gifts will live long.
As often is the case the pithier Hebrew version of these words is more poetic, more absolute, and, as a result, more jarring. שונא מתנת יחיה or in transliteration, SoNAy (Lit. He who hates) MaTaNoT (gifts) YiCHYeH (will live). Note that the verse doesn’t allow for indifference, but one must despise the idea of being on the receiving end for gifts.
Now that is a counter cultural concept if I ever heard one.
The Talmud teaches what an exemplar of this value does to demonstrate that he is one who spurns gifts.
“A Sage who does not hesitate to declare his own food treif (not kosher) when he is not absolutely certain” (B. Talmud Hullin 44b)
The commentaries learn that if he is not so invested in his own sustenance than surely he is not one to care about gifts. The reason being that he is more concerned about keeping the law than he is material losses. Certainly,such a person will never consider a material gift to “matter”.
What does it mean to “spurn gifts”? It is to see them as tempting distractions that deter one from life’s purpose, a nefarious subterfuge to make one subject to the sycophantic designs of those who wish to curry favor. The same Talmudic passage recounts that:
Rabbi Elazar was sent a gift from the House of the Nasi (the Jewish leadership) and he wouldn’t accept it. He was invited to join them, and he refused to go. When they inquired as to why he would not join, he answered, “He who spurns gifts shall live.”
Rabbi Zera, however, refused gifts when they were sent to him, but accepted the authorities invitation to join them. “They are showing affection to me.” He said.
Here, R. Zera marks a distinction between invitations and gifts. R. Elazar does not. R. Elazar, considering the source sees gifts and invitations as one and the same, but R. Zera is willing to accept the flattery of the officials as long as it does not line his pockets.
Here’s another thing to consider. In times of economic hardship, do gifts not create yet another possibility for humiliation and embarrassment for those who have fallen on hard times and can no longer participate? What would happen if special occasions were celebrated without gifts, but with the reciprocal sharing of bounty, or where ones honored presence was considered gift enough?
I remember when my daughter celebrated a birthday in a Chabad kindergarten. We were invited to attend while the class was served a cake in celebration of her sixth year. She had a wreath of flowers on her head, and the gift from her teacher was that she was given the honor of serving her students her birthday cake.
And truly an honor it was.