How the message of Chanukah can increase your mental health and wellbeing

As a young boy growing up in Czechoslovakia, Hugo Gryn, who would grow up to become a prominent Jewish leader in England, was sent to Auschwitz with his family.

For a while he and his father shared a barrack.

In spite of the unspeakable horror, oppression and hardship, many Jews held onto what scraps of Jewish religious observance they could.

One year, the inmates became aware of the fact that it was the first night of Hanukkah, the festival of lights, and Hugo’s father constructed a little Hanukkah menorah out of scrap metal.

For a wick, he took some threads from his prison uniform and for oil, he had saved up some of the meagre rations of margarine.

Hugo’s father secretly gathered little Hugo and others to celebrate this first night of Hanukkah and light the candles.

Hugo remembers being outraged at his father, not because he was endangering the lives of everyone participating in this religious act of defiance,and not even because his father still insisted on clinging to the religion that seemed to be the cause of their hellish suffering…

No, Hugo was furious with his father because he thought it wildly impractical and frivolous to use a sliver of margarine which at the time equaled energy, calories, survival, and life itself, and put in a menorah rather in someone’s mouth!

“Would it not be better to share the fat on a crust of bread than to burn it?!” the boy protested.

Hugo’s father’s words would remain with him for the rest of his life:

“Hugo,” said his father, “If Aushwitz has taught us anything it is that a person can live for days without food but they cannot live for even one moment without light…

Many are familiar with Abraham Maslow’s theory of the pyramid and hierarchy of human needs, which places the physiological and metabolical at the bottom and most urgent, followed by physical and emotional safety and shelter, social belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization.

In his later years, Maslow explored a further dimension of motivation, while criticizing his original vision of self-actualization.

By this later theory, one finds the fullest realization in giving oneself to something beyond oneself—for example, in altruism or spirituality.

Each era has its unique struggles and solutions, each generation its particular challenges and calling.

In reality, the past 8 months notwithstanding, we live in an era of unprecedented privilege and prosperity, one in which the basic levels of Maslow’s pyramid of needs, food, clothing and shelter and education are available to more members of our human family than ever before.

But perhaps precisely because we don’t have to struggle for basic survival like our ancestors did, perhaps because we are so blessed materially, that ours is also – and perhaps even correspondingly – a generation that seems to be struggling increasingly with mental and emotional health and well-being.

Perhaps, therefore, ours, more than previous generations, understands the Chanukah message Hugo’s fathers taught him all those years ago:

That arguably the most important ingredient necessary for human survival and well-being is light: a sense of meaning, connection, spirituality, service, and purpose.

Interestingly, according to a Gallup poll* that came out this week which measured the decline in mental health over the past year across demographics, genders, ages and races, the only group of people whose mental health didn’t decrease but increased were those who attended religious services weekly!

It is this search for meaning and transcendence which burns brightly in each of us that Chanuka comes to celebrate.
You see, our sages teach us that when kindling the candles we should listen to the story they tell.
And what a story it is.
It’s a story of courage and conviction, sacrifice and spirituality, resilience and renewal.
It’s the improbable story of a small band of Maccabees armed with spunk and spirit who took on a brutal regime and overcame a mighty army.
But its much more than just the story of physical survival against all odds.
It’s the story of a clash of civilizations and a war of ideas, originally fought between ancient Judea and Greece, but played out thereafter on every subsequent page of history, including our own.
At the heart of this story is the conflict between right over might, the idea of power versus the power of ideas, the hands of Esau pitted against the voice of Jacob.
It’s the story about a conflict of ideology that is as timely as it is timeless.
Is there a loving creator of the universe, a caring architect of humanity, and a gentle author of history?
Or is history, to quote Joseph Heller, “a trash bag of random coincidences torn open by the wind?”
Are we sacred beings, children of G-d, created in the divine image, the crown of creation and G-d’s chosen partners in perfecting His world, or are we, to quote a prominent atheist: “just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies…”
Is our world fundamentally secular or sacred, mundane or miraculous, is human existence callous or compassionate, purposeless or providential?
This is a question we must each decide for ourselves.
As Albert Einstein put it, “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
This is also the question addressed directly and answered movingly in the blessing over the Chanukah candles:
“Blessed are you our loving creator and master of the universe who performed miracles for our people, in those days as in ours.”
The second blessing we make answers perhaps an even more personal and urgent question than the first.
How will we choose to lead and live our lives?
Will we will devote our stay on earth to the pursuit of pleasure or purpose, hedonism or holiness, materialism or meaningfulness?
This question is answered by the blessing: “Thank you G-d almighty for sanctifying us and commanding us to kindle the lights of Chanukah.”
In other words, thank you Hashem for allowing us to take part in bringing healing and holiness to your world through acts of goodness and g-dliness called Mitzvot.
So as we kindle the Chanukah flames tonight, know that their story is your story, that like them you are an agent and ambassador of love and light to the world and humanity and that together you and I can create a better and brighter world by fulfilling our role to be a light unto our nation and all nations!
Chag Sameach!
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About the Author
Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson is the rabbi of Beit Baruch and executive director of Chabad of Belgravia, London, where he lives with his wife, Chana, and children. Mendel was an editor at the Judaism Website—, and is also the author of the popular books Seeds of Wisdom, A Time to Heal, and Positivity Bias, and an upcoming book titled "People of the Word: 5o words that shaped Jewish thought"
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