With a cold winter already making us shiver, thinking of the holiday of Chanukah is one way to stay warm. As we shovel, slide and sneeze, we are happily distracted by visions of feasting on sizzling, crispy latkes, and enjoying eye-candy in the form of jelly and chocolate-filled donuts, topped with a dusting of powdered or rainbow-hued sprinkles.
We eagerly look forward to a week of get-togethers with family and friends – the more the merrier because we can cook and prepare as they show up – with no need to find overnight lodging for them. They can drive home! (Unless there’s a blizzard, but let’s be optimistic!)
It is a holiday celebrated by Jews of all levels of observance and is quite “user friendly.” Maybe not that friendly to one’s waistline, but who can tell under your coat?
The children play dreidel with their siblings and cousins and the adults catch up with each other’s lives. A fleet of menorahs is lined up on the windowsill, their candles proudly winking to passerby like soldiers standing guard. Bubbies and Zaydies come laden with gifts that they hunted for in the toy stores, or online stores. (My generation is quite aware of on-line shopping – even if we sometimes forget our passwords.)
The family gatherings, the holiday food, the gifts, are just one component of Chanukah. Yes, there were miracles – a container of oil burning days longer than it should have based on physical law, a rag-tag group of men engaging in battle with a large, well-armed army and beating them. But I think the deeper message of Chanukah is about facing extremely difficult challenges and trying to improve what is wrong – instead of walking away and giving up without trying. It’s about ignoring lashon harah – the negative, demoralizing messages that are directed at you, including the negative voices in your own psyche, that insist you will fail.
Could that have been the mindset of the people of Israel during the occupation of the Syrian-Greeks? Why is it that the elderly Matityahu ended up leading a rebellion against them with what appears to be a relatively small group of men at his side?
It would appear that his own sons were his “generals” and officers. I kind of doubt that this was nepotism on his part, but rather that he had no one else to choose from. It is easy to conclude that Matityahu must have tried to rally hundreds if not thousands of his countrymen to his cause of ousting the Greeks who had imposed religious restrictions on the Jews and tried to force them to assimilate into their culture. I am sure that while many did embrace the pagan culture practiced by the conquerors, thousands upon thousands of disgruntled Jews were seething about their loss of autonomy. Nonetheless, it would seem that the great majority told Matityahu that he would not succeed, so why risk losing their lives and whatever freedoms they did have? Hence the miniscule army.
“Are you crazy?” must have been the collective voice of negativity and criticism. “We are farmers and shepherds, not military men!”
“Matityahu, you and your sons are kohanim, priests, not soldiers. What are you thinking!!!”
As I mentioned in my previous column, there are different levels of lashon harah. One of the most insidious is words of derision and denigration that erode a people’s self-confidence, hamstringing them from believing in themselves and their ability to succeed at whatever they are reaching for. Matityahu’s peers likely voiced their words of negativity – not out of malice, but based on what they saw, “on the ground.”
Their words of failure were based on logic, but not on faith.
I am sure that Matityahu had his moments of doubt – that the odds were so high against him that he would fail in his attempt to rid the country of the enemy. But he set aside his grave misgivings because he believed that Hashem is the Master of the Universe and that at the end of the day, physical law does not matter.
Perhaps he reminded himself how the very old matriarch Sarah laughed when she heard she would be a mother – and within a year gave birth to Yitzchak.
Matityahu and his followers had bitachon, and that led to a positive mindset and the optimism to take on the impossible.
Chanukah is about putting your faith in Hashem, accepting that He put us on this earth to grow by trying, and that success is defined in the attempt, not necessarily the outcome.
I remember as a child watching in fascination as ants would try to pull a tiny twig or a much bigger dead insect, struggling with the weight and size of it. Whether the ants ultimately reached their destination is irrelevant – what matters is that they tried, mightily.
Nobody goes through life without having to face a personal Chanukah, and like Matityahu, we get bombarded by negativity, some well-meaning and based on the “facts,” and some fueled by people who, feeling like failures, and want you to feel like one also.
Many times the negativity comes from our own inner voice.
“I’ve been fat all my life, I can’t lose weight, why should I try yet another diet?”
“I have cancer, my life is over.”
“Medical school – there are more qualified, smarter people than you applying, why should they accept you?”
“You’ve tried to have kids for years. Why are you wasting your money on another fertility treatment?”
I happen to like the TV series Star Trek and watched it as a child. In several of the episodes, the chief engineer, Mr. Scott is asked by the captain to do the impossible, like fix the warp drive in 10 minutes or else the ship will be sucked into another universe.
Knowing that he’d need at least an hour, Mr. Scott would shout to the captain in his Scottish accent, “I canna change the laws of physics!” Yet, as he said it, he would roll up his sleeves and jump into doing his best to achieve the impossible. Of course, because it was television, Mr. Scott would always succeed.
Speaking of Scots, there was a Scottish king called Robert the Bruce. There is a legend that as he hid from his English enemies he watched a spider try to build a web between two beams. The spider swung over and over again and failed to connect the web. Finally he succeeded. This scenario allegedly gave the defeated king hope that he could regain his kingdom – and he eventually did.
Matityahu had unwavering faith and that is what fueled his ability to take on what seemed like an insurmountable challenge. He refused to accept the defeatism of the lashon harah chorus – the “no, you won’t succeed” voices – no matter how logical those voices were, no matter that what they said actually made sense based on reality.
Matityahu’s emunah translated into lashon hatov: “I can succeed, and if I don’t that is okay, because it is Hashem’s will and the outcome is what it is supposed to be.”
Throughout life, we will face many extremely difficult challenges – custom-made “Chanukahs” that Hashem tailored for us. Do we forge ahead like the Maccabees despite the likelihood of failure, buoyed by emunah that we win because the outcome contains Hashem’s plan for us or do we succumb to lashon harah and do nothing?