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The Story Of Chanukah: ‘I Think I Can’

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Chanukah is just about upon us and Jews across the planet are looking forward to family gatherings, delicious food (you can’t feel too guilty eating oily latkes and high carb donuts on the chag – hey, it’s practically a mitzvah to do so); giving and receiving gifts and in general celebrating our survival – our spiritual continuance as God-fearing Jews. (Our physical survival is an event we acknowledge on Purim.)

Chanukah commemorates two unlikely events – the triumph of the Jews over the Greeks and their pagan culture, and the lasting of a small jar of kosher oil – meant to burn in the Temple menorah just a day – for an extra seven days until more kosher oil could be produced.

Anyone betting on a rag-tag of Jews, led not by a trained warrior, but by a Kohen, a peaceful cleric, to defeat a vastly superior armed Greek forces would have been viewed as crazy.

So too, anyone betting the Temple oil would burn longer than 24 hours.

But, despite the mind-boggling odds of either event happening, the Jews were not deterred and went ahead with their plans. They had faith, both in themselves and in Hashem.

It is said that God helps those who helps themselves. But the person has to take the initiative, that first crucial step.

Many of us are familiar with the popular children’s story of the little engine that takes on an undertaking that bigger, stronger, more “qualified” engines refuse to accept. They are realistic in their refusal to attempt something they feel is extremely difficult, if not impossible to do. They are convinced they will fail, so why bother?

The little engine, however, despite the fact he was not designed to pull a large train, thinks he just might be able to do so. At the very least, he will attempt this formidable challenge. If he doesn’t try, then for sure he won’t succeed.

Fuelled by a positive attitude and great optimism, he is willing to give it his best shot – even if the laws of physics are not in his favour.

There is a life-enhancing lesson here that we should take to heart: Do not let the facts on the ground ever deter you from trying to reach a goal.

It might be amusing for some to discover (like I did) that this message of “going for it,” despite the “facts” staring you in the face, was often brought forth decades ago in the very popular science-fiction series, “Star Trek.” Frequently, the chief engineer of the spaceship exploring the galaxy would be ordered by the captain “to get us out of here.” Depending on the theme of the episode, the spaceship would be in imminent danger of being destroyed by an exploding asteroid; swallowed up by a space monster the size of a planet; about to be blown up to smithereens by alien forces or trapped forever in another dimension – unless it immediately went to warp speed and high-tailed it out of there.

Often the captain would tell the chief engineer that he had several minutes to repair the disabled warp drive. And the chief engineer, in a reproachful voice, would tell the captain that he needed at least a few minutes to do so – that he “couldn’t change the laws of physics.” But he would always try, and he always succeeded.

Of course this was television, and a happy ending was necessary for the show to continue. But the lesson to be gleaned here, as exemplified by the story of Chanukah, is that you can’t let pessimism stop you from taking on a difficult challenge, you can’t admit defeat before you even attempt what seems likely to be futile.

You may be faced with seemingly insurmountable odds: you are an older single; you have a physical handicap; you have learning disabilities; you have kids off the derech; you have severe shalom bayit issues, you have been out of work for a long time. There is no shortage of problems to tackle and goals to achieve. But it is crucial to make the effort to “fix” the situation.

Often multiple attempts to resolve your issues end in failure. You want to give up – no more putting yourself in an uncomfortable, even demeaning situation, like continuing to ask friend and casual acquaintance alike if they can think of a shidduch for you or a job. Or going for marital counselling- again, or for yet another invasive, costly fertility treatment.

It’s tempting to throw in the towel and give up. Or not bother to try in the first place.

But what if Matityahu had felt that way? The Greek army was a large, well-oiled fighting machine. It’s likely Matityahu, the leader of the Jewish freedom fighters, must have repeatedly been warned not to even think about fighting the Greeks.

Similarly when it came time to light the menorah in the Holy Temple and there was only enough oil for one day, the opinion of most might have been, “the flame is not going to last – so why waste what you have?”

However, like the fictional chief engineer on the spaceship, and the little engine, Matityahu did not let logic or the laws of nature stop him from trying. He did not let the extreme odds against success hold him back from “going for it.”

And neither should we. The road of life is full of potholes and seeming dead-ends. Faced with these damaging bumps, barriers and obstacles ahead, there is the temptation to just accept the yoke of the status quo, and give up continuing to reach our desired destination.

The lesson of Chanukah, however, is clear. Do not give up; do not let the “facts” stop you from trying to change what seems to be cut in stone. We must internalize the mindset of the little engine, who, as he struggles up the hill chants, “I think I can. I think I can.”

Many years ago, while flipping through a newspaper looking for the comics, I came across the obit page. Most were a few lines, so when I saw a rather lengthy piece, I glanced at it out of curiosity. It started with the words, “18 years after being given six months to live, the family sadly announces the passing of…” It went on to say how this man in his upper 40′s had far exceeded medical expectations – had even outlived some of his doctors. Obviously, this man did not allow the “experts” to dictate to him what his future would be. Despite the “facts on the ground” he fought – just like the Maccabees.

So, too, we must not let “reality” stop us from trying to attain our heartfelt goals. There are many individuals who have been told that they are terminally ill, will never have children, will never walk again, or that their child will never be functional. Yet they or their loved one are alive and well, having achieved the supposedly impossible.

The act of trying is itself a kiddush Hashem – an act of extreme faith. When attempting the seemingly unachievable, you are expressing your belief that there is a Master of the Universe, who is above the laws of physics, nature, biology, etc. Hence, He can execute miracles. All He requires is that you take the first step.

At the end of the day, since all is in Hashem’s hands, the true measure of your success will not be in the attaining, but in the trying.

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