A Chanukah Reflection
Ladies and gentlemen, Put on your Yarmulke, here comes Hanukah! Tell Veronica, Get out your Harmonica! As this SNL classic Jewish song reminds us, Chanukah is one of those times that all Jews connect to. But if we look at the Chag more deeply, these are days our sages established for Hallel and Thanksgiving for the miracle that G-d performed.
When we consider the idea of a miracle, it raises a problem. What about Jews who do not believe in miracles? How do you celebrate a holiday about a miracle—if you don’t believe in miracles? Latkes and Sufganiyot are nice, but they are not the reason for Chanukah. I have considered this question over the years. More recently, I came across a discussion that sheds light on the issue.
We live in a time when depression and anxiety are on the rise amongst children and adolescents. How can we explain this? Author and psychoanalyst Erica Komisar notes that being raised with religious and spiritual beliefs has a major positive impact on long term mental health. If atheism is fertilizer for depression, she says, belief in G-d is one of the best kinds of support for kids in the challenging world that we live in.
But what do you say to your children if you do not believe in G-d or in the next world? According to Komisar, you should just lie to them. The idea that you die and return to dust is not good for kids, she argues. So if you want to set your kids on a solid foundation for mental health, just lie to them and tell them that there is a benevolent G-d who has an ultimate purpose for you.
Kids Grow Up
I gave a lot of thought to this advice. My issue is this: sooner or later, the kids are going to grow up. When they are 15 or 25, they are going to figure out the ugly truth. OK, they had the advantage of growing up with the opium of religion. But in the end, they will learn that we are all mere dust. If that is true, could it really be good to lie to our kids?
But here is a further question. If belief in G-d and the afterlife is so good for you, what does that say about belief in G-d? If belief in G-d is a true indicator of human health and success, what does that imply about the very notion that there is a G-d?
Perhaps, this is just an indication that in fact, there really is an inner soul of the universe. When we are connected to that inner soul, we thrive. That inner spirit is the true foundation of what we are. When we are disconnected from that reality, we will tend to be less healthy because we are more distanced from our true roots.
So perhaps the answer to this question is not to lie to our kids, but to ask ourselves the deeper question. It is a question that many modern folks do not consider deeply enough. What is the inner soul of the world? What is the deeper answer to this riddle called life?
Yosef the Hebrew
The Jewish people gave the world the incredible gift of monotheism. And what a gift it is. The Torah reveals the G-dly roots we come from, informing us of our inner spiritual potential. It introduces us to the notion than even amidst challenges, the world is not dark.
Every year during Chanukah, we start to immerse ourselves in the story of Yosef. Yosef was the ultimate story of Jewish identity. He was run out of his home as a youth and descended all the way to the life of a prisoner in a pit. And yet, even there in exile he did not lose his inner spark. When he was a slave in Egypt, he was referred to as the Ivri; he was known as a “Hebrew.” And for good reason.
The Torah remarks that when Yosef first landed in servitude, his master saw that G-d was with him and all that Yosef did succeeded. Rashi comments, G-d was with him: “the name of Heaven was regularly uttered on Yosef’s lips.”
Yosef’s connection to G-d was not merely a belief. It was a value that Yosef expressed in many ways throughout his life. The name of G-d was on Yosef’s lips in the most important times. The wife of Potifar made advances. Yosef refused. His refusal speech went like this:
And he said to the wife of his master, ‘Behold, my master has not withheld anything in this house from me except for you, as you are his wife. So how can I do this great evil and sin unto G-d?’(Gen. 39,9)
G-d Oriented Speech
It is hard to think of a more powerful declaration. I cannot give into temptation because my master and G-d withhold you from me. Yosef’s underlying belief in G-d prevented him from committing an atrocity.
The Torah also remarks that Yosef refused “to lie with her, to be with her.” Rashi comments: Yosef refused to lie with her in this world, to be with her in the next world.
Rashi’s comment too shows how much Yosef’s belief about G-d and the next world were the foundation of his moral stance. He refused to lie with her in the physical sense, understanding that if he were to do so, he would be with her—and the sin—in an eternal sense.
This deep morality was imbued in him from the home of his father. As our rabbis remark,Yosef was nearly ready to sin. However, the image of his father—the shepherd of Israel—appeared to him, and he fled. Yosef’s G-d centered approach to life continued throughout his years, even in the darkest of times.
When people came to him with dreams, even Yosef he proceeded to help, he declared that the interpretations are in the hands of G-d. At the very end of his life, when the brothers feared that Yosef harbored hatred against them, he assured them that G-d had brought him to Egypt in order to bring sustenance to the family.
Expressing Core Values
What is the picture that emerges? Yosef is a man who believes deeply in G-d. That belief comes across. It is not something that he talks about to gain favor. It is a core value and belief of his. Because he has the core belief, it comes across in many ways, but especially his speech.
Let us go back to our question. What should a parent who does not believe in G-d or miracles do when they want to celebrate Chanukah? How do you give your kids that strong foundation if you are not a believer?
A deeper answer is that we need to take the time to reflect on our inner core values. What do you believe about the universe? When we have identified those values and beliefs, we should consider if we convey them in our actual lives, especially through our speech. If HaShem is central in your life, that will probably come across in your words.
Children are not only impressionable—they pick up on the deeper truth of who we are. Children who are raised in a home that is steeped in Jewish morals, values and connection to G-d will pick up on it. We have to ask ourselves if our words and actions live up to those inner values that we identify.
The nature of Chanukah itself deeply reflects this idea. The Gemara teaches that the sages made established the days of Chanukah as Yom Tov days of Hallel and Hodah (praise and thanksgiving).
Through lighting the Ner and singing Hallel, we utter G-d’s praises. We transform historic memory to our living and breathing values. Our children pick up on that. People around us are impacted. And of course, it impacts who we are.
This Chanukah, as the candles flicker, you can do something transformative. Take time to reflect. Chanukah is a time of contemplation and soul searching. What are your inner core beliefs? Take the time to consider that and how those beliefs get expressed in your deeds, especially your speech.
This Chanukah discover yourself in the days of Hallel and Hodah.