Imagine you are walking down a dark road. It’s pitch black outside and you can’t see a thing. You grope along a fence along the side of the road so as not to trip over whatever may be there in front of you. All of a sudden, you hear the noise of a car from behind, and sure enough a few seconds later the road is lit by its lights.
What do you do? Do you rejoice at the brief moments of light before the car passes you by or do you take the opportunity to take a good look at the road that is ahead of you and at your surroundings so as to get a better idea of what lies ahead?
The Beit Avraham of Slonim suggests that this is the deep meaning of Chanukah. As the last holiday instituted before the exile, the ideals of Chanukah – preserving the purity of tradition, self-sacrifice and hoping against all hope – have been the ones to carry us through.
On a personal level, we all walk the road of life in darkness, not knowing what will happen next. Often, we are confronted with conflicting values, unable to distinguish right from wrong. At these times of moral vertigo, we need a compass to lead us.
Our moments of clarity help us navigate the swaths of darkness. Like car lights on a dark road, Chanukah is one such moment of clarity. Besides rejoicing in the holiday, playing games with kids, and enjoying a stretch of vacation, the Slonimer suggests taking the values of Chanukah to guide us for the coming months of routine.
This year, my Chanukah clarity came from The Soul of Chanukah – Teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, compiled by Rabbi Shlomo Katz (disclaimer: I got a reviewer’s copy). Like a treasure chest full of jewels, each idea is exquisitely short, yet profoundly inspiring. Culled from the teachings of Hassidic masters, each teaching seamlessly connects ideas and verses from various parts of the Torah, letting them illuminate each other.
Relevant as always, each one of Reb Shlomo’s ideas is not only inspiring, but actionable. It gives something to walk away with, to shine clarity on the coming months of hard work. Reb Shlomo’s words shed light on every interaction: the relationships with our children and our spouses, the outlook on the past and the future, but more than anything, the relationship we can have with ourselves.
For me, the most compelling idea in the volume was that on fear. Coaching my clients, I find fear to be the predominant emotion these days. Every day, I encounter fears of all kinds: the fear of failure, the fear of success, the fear of the unknown, and the fair of being “found out.” More often than not, fears come in neat little packages of excuses for why we can’t possibly do this or that.
Yehuda Maccabee’s great heroism lied not in his physical prowess, but in his lack of fear. He was not just not afraid. On the contrary, he was filled with what Reb Shlomo calls “non-fear.” This was the secret that allowed 70 priests to take on half a million Greek soldiers.
It was this lack of fear that enabled Yehuda to reach out to Jews seemingly steeped in Hellenist culture and win them back to the path of Torah. Beyond lack of fear when faced with physical danger, the Maccabees courageously swept aside the fear of rejection. “[Yehudah the Maccabee] didn’t get an army of the kids who were on the right path… “ writes Reb Shlomo. “He took people who were deep into Greek culture and put a candle into their darkness and brought them out.”
Though the story of Chanukah is over 2,000 years old, the challenges we face are similar. We may not be facing an onslaught of a physical army, but we have all imbibed foreign ideas to the point that we are not even aware of them. Though squaring Western culture with Jewish tradition has become an ideal in its own right, the two are often incompatible. Judaism and Western values are at odds over the primacy of the process over outcome, individual responsibilities over rights, and the pursuit of meaning over the pursuit of happiness, to name just a few.
Taking on this dichotomy, first and foremost in our own minds, takes the courage of the Maccabees. Preserving our authenticity even when others think differently is a feat of bravery. Yet nothing brings clarity more than non-fear. When our minds are not clouded by what others will think or say, we can be really true to ourselves.
Soon the lights of Chanukah will pass us by. I hope to take a spark of the Maccabees’ non-fear for the journey back into the dark.