When the venerable sage, Rabbi Chiya bar Abba, fell ill, his friend and colleague, Rabbi Yochanan, visited him and asked, “Is your suffering dear to you?” Rabbi Chiya answered soberingly, “Not the suffering, nor its reward.” To which Rabbi Yochanan responded, “Give me your hand,” he extended his hand and Rabbi Yochanan restored him to health. Sometime later, Rabbi Yochanan himself fell ill. His friend and colleague Rabbi Chanina visited him and asked him a familiar question, “Is your suffering dear to you?” Rabbi Yochanan also answered matter-of-factly, “Not the suffering, nor its reward.” To which Rabbi Chanina also responded, “Give me your hand.” He extended his hand and Rabbi Chanina restored him to health.
Upon concluding this story, the Talmud (Brakhot 5b) asks an intriguing question. Rabbi Yochanan was able to restore his friend’s health when his friend was ill, so why couldn’t he do the same for himself? Why did Rabbi Yochanan require a visit from Rabbi Chanina to provide for him what he had already been able to provide for someone else?
This question speaks to the heart of the human experience. Why do we give good advice to others in the same predicaments that we ourselves feel paralyzed? Why do we cringe watching others make a mistake only to find ourselves falling to the same compulsion just a few moments later? Why do therapists need therapists and rabbis need rabbis? Why are we able to help each other but often times, not ourselves?
The Talmud’s answer speaks to all of us, “A prisoner cannot free himself from jail.” We all need each other because when we are the prisoner, we cannot see the perspective visible from the outside.
But perhaps the meaning of this answer is even deeper. “A prisoner cannot free himself from jail” because the darkest prison of all is the prison of loneliness. If you cannot ask for, or receive, the help of another person, then no matter what freedoms you may have, you remain in jail. Isolation is its own jail of sorts.
The Surgeon General recently released a report on what they refer to as an epidemic of loneliness in the United States. In the past few years, other countries have released similar findings as well. Research is showing that people spend less time socializing than they did twenty years ago and more people report living without a close and trusted friend or family member to confide in. The report details the jarring effects of loneliness and its many harmful symptoms on mental and physical health.
On Chanukah, we remember when the ancient Greek civilization and culture boasted of physical prowess and intellectual acumen. Their minds and muscles were tempting and many Jews were swept away into the allure of accomplishment and pride. But one clarion call kept the Jewish people alive and found light in the darkness.
Echoing the call of Moshe Rabbeinu, Judah the Maccabee called out to his people, “Mi La’Hashem Eilaiy” – “Those who are for Hashem, to me.” Perhaps he was saying: Those who understand that there is a God, that God is the independent and perfect Creator, and we are dependent and imperfect creations, come to me. Connect with me. Enter the world of “Eilaiy” – of needing someone, because none of us can manage this life alone.
Attachment Theorist, Dr. Sue Johnson, writes that Western society has taught us that dependency is a dirty word. Our culture often promotes the notion of self-sufficiency, career success, and self-actualization as a way to find meaning and fulfillment. In this image, the legacy of Ancient Greek culture lives on.
It is no coincidence that the Greeks were defeated by a family. Matisyahu U’banav – Matityahu and his sons, took on the Greeks and brought light back to the Jewish people. They were a family.
The victory of Chanukah is the victory of family. On Chanukah we celebrate the beauty of dependency and what it means to lean on one another. Perhaps this is another reason we have the custom to give each other gifts on Chanukah. We purposely create an experience of giving and taking from one another in order to embrace, and even celebrate, the reality of relying on each other.
At this moment in Jewish history, we need each other. Acutely. The call, “Mi La’Hashem Eilaiy” – “Those who are for Hashem, come to me” could not be more urgent.
“Come to me” can be read in two ways – come to me because I am here for you. Or come to me because I need you. Both are true and both communicate our deepest needs in this time.
This Chanukah, call your family, friends, loved ones, and perhaps even distant acquaintances. Echo the call that brought light to our ancestors in their darkest moments, “Those who are for Hashem, come to me.” To some, you might communicate a message saying, come to me, I’m here for you. How are you doing? How can I support you? And to others, you might be saying, come to me, I need you. I’m struggling, can I lean on you? Can we connect?
We tend to read the Talmudic passage above and assume that the rabbis healed one another by performing a supernatural miracle of sorts. Perhaps that’s true, but another reading may suggest that they saw their dis-ease as a form, or symptom, of loneliness and they restored each other’s health through vulnerability and connection. After all, the healing effect of extending one’s hand into the warm embrace of another is among the most miraculous phenomenon imaginable.