The Candles and the Tree

It was the December after my ninth birthday. A menorah rested on the bookshelf over the television console. Across the room, beside the fireplace, the lights of a tree twinkled red and green and blue. I was standing next to my mother as she held a candle in her hand. My father wasn’t there. He wasn’t into these things.

My mother lit the lone candle, ushering in the first night of Chanukah. She didn’t recite the blessing. She didn’t know it. I remember watching the wick catch, watching the flame grow bright, and asking myself, “Now what happens?”

“We light the candles for eight nights because the oil burned for eight days,” my mother had told me. What oil? I wondered. But something about her brief explanation convinced me not to ask. Maybe she didn’t know, either.

A year or two later, at my suggestion, the menorah had disappeared and only the tree remained. Waiting for the morning of December 25th when all the presents could be opened at once seemed far more dramatic than diluting the experience over a week, especially when those wrapped boxes mysteriously appeared under the tree day after day over the course of almost a whole month. Chanukah just couldn’t compete.

Only two decades later did I come to appreciate how much my own experience had truly been a Chanukah story.

When I left home for college I left behind the tree with the menorah. December 25th had become as irrelevant as Santa Claus, and I preferred an envelope with a check to wrapped presents that would most likely be returned for credit. I eagerly adopted the ambivalent agnosticism of so many of my peers, celebrating dormitory weekends by emptying six-packs rather than observing commercialized annual holidays with empty rituals.

Sometime toward the end of my university career I found myself attracted to Zen. Not in the traditional style, with its practices of discipline and self-mastery, but the pop-spiritual variety learned from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and similar modern scriptures.

Aligning myself with the spiritual energy of the universe became my goal. I wanted to choose good over evil because ultimately that brought good karma and spiritual contentment. Surely, this was the road to Truth.

But we all know which road is paved with good intentions. As sincere as I may have been in my aspiration to travel the road to truth, I found with annoying frequency that when my desire to do good clashed with my desire to indulge evil, good threw in the towel at least two times out of three. Forced to take stock of myself, I had to concede that, for all its high-sounding ideals, a spiritual discipline that produced no moral discipline wasn’t worth its mantras.

I hadn’t developed much discipline in my academic life, either. Oh, my grades were good enough, but four years studying English literature and writing had left me with neither gainful employment nor vocational direction. It was 1983, a decade late to join the hippies or beatniks, but that didn’t stop me from swinging a backpack over my shoulders and hitchhiking across the country. If I hadn’t found Truth in the ivory tower, perhaps I might find it in the heart of America.

Sixth months crisscrossing the country brought me no closer to Truth, but it did whet my wanderlust, and I soon boarded a flight across the Atlantic to continue my journey through Europe, after which Africa, Asia, and Australia lay upon my horizon.

Half a year in Europe ended with a short hop across the Mediterranean to Israel, where I sought the classical Jewish experience of volunteering to pick oranges on a kibbutz. But it was December, with little agricultural work to be done; moreover, the dollar was strong, resulting in some 9 million American tourists in Europe, many of them draining south into Israel as winter weather set in. I found the kibbutz placement office blocked by a line of 20-somethings camped out like they were waiting for Rolling Stones tickets, oblivious to signs screaming, NO PLACEMENTS BEFORE JANUARY.

Desperate for a break from the stresses of travel on a shoestring, I cast about for some way of imposing routine upon my life before departing for Africa and, somehow, found myself invited to attend yeshiva.

Yeshiva? The word was unfamiliar, but the offer of a bed, hot meals, and a daily schedule of classes proved irresistible. It was two weeks before Chanukah, and I would finally learn about the secrets of the menorah and the miracle of the oil.

Although a period of peaceful coexistence followed Alexander the Great’s occupation of the Land of Israel, it didn’t take long after Alexander’s death before the Greeks began to feel first discomfited and later threatened by their Jewish subjects and the Judaism they practiced. Greek philosophy recognized man as the pinnacle of creation, perfect in his accomplishments, answerable to no one but himself. Greek mythology embraced a pantheon of gods characterized by caprice and selfishness, by lust and vengeance, thereby sanctioning similar behavior among men. How offended must the Greeks have been by a Jewish society devoted to self-perfection through submission to a divine code of moral conduct.

When they could no longer tolerate the Jewish threat to their ideals, the Greeks contrived to destroy Jewish ideology. Whereas their predecessors, Babylon and Persia, had employed violent oppression, the Greeks plotted with far greater subtlety: in place of physical violence or outright prohibition of Torah observance, they originally banned only three practices: Shabbos, bris milah, and Rosh Chodesh, the sanctification of the new month.

The Sabbath testifies to the divine nature of the universe; without this weekly reminder, we easily loose touch with and ultimately forget our relationship with our Creator. Bris milah is the sign of our higher calling, reminding us that we can control our physical impulses rather than allowing them to control us, that each of us is a work-in-progress striving toward self-completion and self-perfection. Rosh Chodesh is the ceremony that fixes the calendar and imbues the Jewish holidays with an intrinsic holiness. Without Rosh Chodesh, placement of the holidays would become arbitrary, leeching all meaning from them the way American Federal holidays have lost all substance in the eyes of most Americans.

The Jews refused to submit, and in the end the Greeks resorted to more oppressive decrees and, ultimately, to violence. But their plan had been sound: had they succeeded in stopping our adherence to these three precepts, they would have succeeded also in reducing Torah observance to an empty ritual, one that might have continued on for generations, but would have quickly become bereft of all meaning and spiritual significance. For this reason, the observance of Chanukah always includes one Shabbos, always passes through Rosh Chodesh, and is eight days long as a remembrance of the bris, the covenant between the Jew and his Creator.

Chanukah celebrates victory not only over our Greek oppressors, but also over the Hellenists, those Jews who promoted a new synchronism of Judaism, wherein they hoped to intermingle Jewish practice with that which they found most attractive in Greek culture. The Maccabees recognized the total incompatibility between Greek ideology and Jewish philosophy, and that ultimately one would have to prevail over the other. Without staunch defenders fighting for Jewish identity, the flame of Judaism would inevitably be extinguished and only the tree of foreign culture would remain.

Despite the victory of the Maccabees, the Greeks did not disappear. To this day they persist in their cultural assault against the values of Jewish tradition. The nine year old boy in America, or Britain, or even in Israel, who looks at the Chanukah candles and wonders what they mean, who sees no difference between the flames of the menorah and the twinkling lights of the tree, testifies to the victory of the Greeks.

But not every child has forgotten the lights. The rekindling of the menorah each year reminds us that the torch of Jewish tradition continues to illuminate generation after generation and dispel the darkness of apathy and assimilation. However much the ideological descendants of the Greeks strive to extinguish the lights, the eternal flame that burns within the soul of the Jewish people still shines on and on.

In my own observance of Chanukah, I rejoice that my own children are growing up not only with the lights of the menorah, but with a growing understanding of what they mean. I’m grateful that I can give them what my parents were unable to give me: self-knowledge, the greatest weapon against cultural extinction. They have always known that a tree beside the fireplace in December is not part of their world; as they grow older, they come to appreciate why it is not, and why a menorah is.

Through the generations and across the world, our people have successfully adapted to living as guests among disparate societies, but only by retaining a strong sense of our history, the values of our heritage, and a familiarity with the culture that keeps our sense of identity alive and vibrant. Compromise these, and the Jew, together with his Judaism, will surely vanish. Preserve them, and we guarantee that the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greeks will be renewed in every generation as a victory of the Jewish people over assimilation.

Originally Posted on Dec 23rd, 2007

14 comments on “The Candles and the Tree

  1. Thanks, Bob, for the observation concerning “syncretism.” I’ll fix that in future publications. Concerning the Greek gods, I believe you are right about the secularism of Greek culture by the time of Chanukah. However, the continued prominance of the pantheon in Greek society reveals the lack of moral character in their culture.

    The threat to Jewish society was two-fold. A political, military, and cultural attack from without, and the influence of the Hellenist Jews within. Although the Hellenists certainly aided the Seleucids in their oppression, Greek culture was the enemy that created Hellenism in the first place.

    I appreciate Mordechai Scher’s observation. My parents did a wonderful job of instilling in me a sense of morals, honesty, integrity, responsibility, and consideration. They were raised with as little knowledge of Judaism as I was, and could not have been expected to transmit to me a reverence for a system they were never exposed to themselves.

    So don’t take it too seriously, Mom.

  2. Jeffrey Kass, in fact, has a very good point, and, though Rabbi Goldson did not reveal this in his article, it seems that his mother did pass on the “light”, which, in Rabbi Goldson, apparently kept burning until it was brought to the surface years later when he went to Israel. My mother, a Holocaust survivor from a frum family (whom she lost), brought with her to our family whatever she could recreate (she was a teenager during the war) with my Conservatively-raised father. We had our Friday night Shabbos meal, kiddush, challah, a couple zmiros at times followed by Friday night TV (the frum kids I met later would come over Friday nights to watch, but that’s for another blog). Sukkos was celebrated in our decorated enclosed porch, etc. Bottom line, what I saw in my home was a catalyst for me to explore further. I give my parents a lot of credit for inadvertantly putting me on the road to frumkeit (even though my father gave me a hard time for a good ten years after I “converted”).

  3. A pleasure to read this insightful post. I agree with the comments concerning the (paradoxical) influence of our parents. Having recently lost my mother,I have been thinking a lot about the hakaros hatov I owe her. She may have lit an electric menora and had no idea why she was doing even that, but she clung to whatever vestiges of Judaism remained to her. Apparently this, and the other Jewish values she unassumingly modeled, were enough to start me wondering-30 years ago–what does it mean to be Jewish?

    I’m grateful also to Hashem, for the tremendous comfort and zechus in giving my mother a halachic burial, and for the numerous traditions that enable me to continue showing hakaros hatov to her for the next year, in particular, and afterwards, for the rest of my life.

  4. At the very least, the author’s mother lit a channukiah, it was the author who encouraged her to stop doing so. Funny how things turn around.

  5. I think these last comments are completely missing the point. Rabbi Goldson describes a reality that many of us knew (or something like it), and that still exists on a large-scale. My neighbours across the street have had a tree and hanukiah for as long as I’ve known them.

    And, quite bluntly, we must be respectful of our parents and we must be grateful for all the good they did for us (food, shelter, nurturing, education, etc.). We do not have to falsify the record and give them credit for what they did not contribute to or may have even obstructed. We simply don’t have to talk about that angle at all, by way of preserving their dignity and showing our respect. And I wouldn’t publicly put someone on the spot (such as the author of this thread) asking them to reveal to us how their parents did or did not contribute to their eventually choosing Torah. The challenges he describes are enough for us to understand how fortunate he is, and how confused the situation is in so many Jewish homes.

  6. Except that Jeffrey Kass also wanted to give them credit for something specific that we know nothing about.

  7. Bob Miller wrote:
    Regarding Jeffrey Kass’ comment of
    December 6th, 2007 11:52 :

    Do we know which, if any, positive values Rabbi Goldson’s parents instilled in him and which he picked up on his own?

    And does it matter? The Torah obliges us to honor and respect our parents for simply giving birth to us. Hakaras hatov just goes along with honor and respect, at least in my mind.

  8. Regarding Jeffrey Kass’ comment of
    December 6th, 2007 11:52 :

    Do we know which, if any, positive values Rabbi Goldson’s parents instilled in him and which he picked up on his own?

  9. But the aboive statement from this post generates the ultimate question that this particular blog deals with: Why be Frum?

    With all due respect (WADR), this blog deals with the ultimate question of how to get closer to Hashem and to other people, no matter where you’re holding. People who have made significant strides in that area are seriously interested in that question. Many of those people are BTs.

    “Being Frum”, whatever that means to different people, might be an interesting point on the chart, but I think a Torah Jew needs to focus on where he is going based on realistic assessment of where he is truly holding.

    Getting closer to Hashem, to others, and understanding yourself is what the journey is about. Please join us.

  10. A masterpiece from Rabbi Goldson as usual.

    My only critique is that the article fails to credit these unknowing parents from instilling in Rabbi Goldson the strength and wisdom to find a better path. We sometimes forget that we owe part of our growth to the same people who failed to impart Jewish knowledge. A seeming paradox, but in fact a reality.

  11. I eagerly adopted the ambivalent agnosticism of so many of my peers

    I know that this comment is irrelavant to this particular post and I apologize for crashing it. But the aboive starement from this post geneartes the ultimate question that this particular blog deals with: Why be Frum? I have written a post about it tiday and the readers of this blog are welcome to comment on mine:

  12. In his phrase “a new synchronism of Judaism”, I think the author meant syncretism.

    Also, I understand (somebody show me if I’m wrong) that the Greek philosophers and many of their followers were not too impressed with their own gods and were basically secularists.

    The Seleucid dynasty used religion as a tool for pulling its threatened empire together culturally (Antiochus IV Epiphanes was a special case, since he was a madman who fancied himself to be a god). However, I doubt they would have gone so far in trying to uproot Judaism if they had not been egged on by wealthy, power-hungry Hellenist Jews who had their own agenda. Without Hellenist input, I doubt the oppressors would have figured out so easily which Jewish practices were most central.

  13. Rabbi Yonaton Goldson is such a treasure for our people. His life is a testament to being a Jew. Rabbi, thanks for this article and the glimpse into your life as a child. You, for sure, exemplify the concept of “Beyond T’shuvah”.

    Michael Ballew

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