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Give the Gift of ‘Presence’ This Holiday Season

by RABBI LARRY SERNOVITZ

As a child, I always loved getting presents for the holidays. Unwrapping the gifts and listening to the crumpling and ripping of paper had a certain mystique. I would attempt to size up the package, trying to figure out what was inside based on its dimensions. The process was filled with excitement, intrigue, and suspense. What would be revealed this year?

True confession. There were a few years when, along with my brother, we would launch undercover missions and search for the Chanukah presents before our parents had a chance to wrap them. We knew all the hiding places, even though new ones would always pop up. There was a certain thrill in these “search and rescue” missions, trying to get a sneak peek without getting caught.

While I may remember a few of the gifts I received over the years, most of them have largely been forgotten. Most of those childhood gifts, particularly the new and trendy toys of the season, were used and discarded fairly quickly. As an adult, I would come to realize that that there is only one gift that I ever received that continues to be of value and that was the gift of “presence.”

What I would give today for more time to spend with my mother: my role model, confidant, spiritual advisor, tour guide, and the one who always gave the best hugs during the moments I needed them the most. Just prior to her death in March of 2009, she called me up and began to sing to me, something she often did.

“I just called to say I love you. I just called to say how much I care. I just called to say I love you. And I mean it from the bottom of my heart.”

This Stevie Wonder song was a staple in our home. Mom was filled with love, and not just for us but for anyone and everyone she encountered. I remember so many times when my father would go searching for a sweater or a pair of pants. He would ask her about them and she would tell him, “Oh, those. I gave them away to people in need. They seemed like they needed it more than we did. ”

Many times, when I sit with a family who has just lost a loved one, we’ll go down memory lane, revisiting the moments that they spent with their mom, dad, grandfather, sister, or tragically, child. Their eyes well up with tears, which represent the time and the experiences that they remember. Very rarely do they ever talk about the material gifts that were given but rather the lessons learned from their loved one’s memory, which lives on deep within their hearts.

Today, we are so busy, many argue busier than we have ever been. We are constantly telling people, “I have been so busy.” Maybe, just maybe it is time to reclaim our lives, filling them with quality, spiritual moments where our minds are quiet, appreciative, and content. One of the most inspirational Jewish texts, Pirke Avot (The Chapters of the Fathers), teaches, “Who is rich?” And the answer is the one who is content with what they have. We don’t need more. We need to be more. We need to give the gift of “presence” to those in our lives, to create the experiences that we will look back upon and know that this was time well spent.

The “Be Present” List

  1. Make time
  2. Turn off the phone
  3. Look into the eyes of the other
  4. Hold someone’s hand
  5. Give a hug
  6. Share a meal
  7. Laugh
  8. Cry
  9. Open your heart
  10. Just Be

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.” And, Mother Teresa shared with the world, “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” I will begin the season by turning off my phone when I get home so I can truly be there for my family. Who is it in your life that needs your gift of “presence?” It will be the best gift you will ever give.

This essay was featured in the December 22nd edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.

RABBI LARRY SERNOVITZ

Rabbi Larry Sernovitz is the founder of Nafshenu, a Jewish community in Cherry Hill, NJ. Nafshenu seeks to reimagine Judaism in an ever changing modern world and empower voices for social change.