Ever wonder why the Jewish New Year begins with three back-to-back-to back holidays and then no biblical holidays for another six months?
At the onset of each New Year, God, out of His love for us, gives us tools to clear away any obstruction to coming close to Him. Three main stumbling blocks diminish our instinctual yearning for our Father in Heaven and each holiday addresses a different one.
Chanukah, the first rabbinic holiday following Sukkot, celebrates the rededication by the Maccabees of the Temple. The holiday incorporates the lessons of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot and illuminates the synergy between them.
The first obstacle to union with God is confusion. If we do not acknowledge who created us and why, what will become of our relationship with our Creator? Crowning God our King and Creator is a central theme of Rosh Hashanah. The holiday frames the question, “How can I live my life as God intended when He created me?”
On Chanukah, we thank God for saving us from a threat to our souls rather than to our bodies. The Greeks wanted the Jews to assimilate and, as the rampant assimilation of our own day makes painfully clear, identifying a spiritual menace is much more difficult than recognizing a physical one. The clarity of the Maccabees enabled them to understand what was worth standing up for. When we have clarity, everything in life is viewed in terms of whether it brings us closer to our Father and Creator or farther away.
The second obstacle is contamination. When a person sins, spiritual atherosclerosis sets in. Sometimes our connection to God becomes so clogged that we no longer feel His presence in our lives. Yom Kippur, through repentance, teaches us how to clear away accumulated impurities. Do not be discouraged; even initiating the process can kindle a longing for God.
Part of the Chanukah story is the discovery of one ritually pure jug of oil, still suitable for lighting the Menorah in the Temple. The oil – only enough for one day – miraculously lasted for eight. Each one of us is a miniature temple housing the holy of holies, our souls. By living with this awareness we will distance ourselves from contamination. When we search for purity, as the Maccabees did, and allow only that into our lives, we become vessels fit to receive God’s miracles.
The third obstacle is bitterness. When life does not materialize in the way we desire, we can get angry with God. Sukkot, the festival of joy, occurs during the harvest season, a time of abundance. Part of the holiday’s festivity comes from our appreciation of the many blessings God has given us. A person is unable to feel bitterness and gratitude at the same time; the choice is therefore ours. Sukkot calls out to us, “Choose joy!”
In a study, Dr. Robert A. Emmons found that gratitude can increase our happiness by 25 percent. A spiritual-based exercise is to ask yourself, “What has greatly enhanced the quality of my life?” General categories include: being Jewish, family, friends, emotional/physical health, money, possessions, food, shelter and clothing. Pick an example of one of these and think about how God gave this specifically to you out of His love for you. Talk to God, preferably out loud, and tell Him how you have benefited from it and how grateful you are to Him. Now, bring to mind again how your Father gave this specifically to you because He loves you. Preferably, repeat this process using three different quality of life enhancers.
One benefit of this practice is a deep warm feeling of being loved by your Father. In addition, this exercise can lead to the awareness that just as the overt blessings in our lives are given to us by God because He loves us, everything else is also given out of God’s love. Though we do not know how something specific is a manifestation of His love, the fact that God does love us is something we can see, feel and know.
Chanukah, a festival of thanksgiving, does not mark the end of the struggle against the Greeks; the fighting continued for another 22 years. Why didn’t the Jews wait until the end of the war to celebrate? Because they knew the secret of gratitude – to be grateful for every blessing, regardless of what else is going on in our lives. Each day, no matter how bleak, contains within it a kernel for which we can be appreciative; a portal to joy and feeling God’s love.