Before I knew of the existence of the sexual urge, I had a passion for life… for the continuation of life. I came to this world at a time of existential threat to my people and culture. My childhood was associated with the systematic destruction and murder of my people, including members of my own family. Don’t talk to me about it. I am still traumatized after a lifetime.
But I am mentioning this subject, so as to share with you some of the thoughts I had last night, when celebrating Chanukah with some of my younger grandchildren. I have older grandchildren too, adults, who are making their own choices, and living their own lives… a granddaughter who is soaking up culture and adventure in far away India. But the younger grandchildren were assembled last night in the home of Jonah and Yael, enjoying the festival of lights with music and games, good food and stories.
The holiday of lights, Chanukah, as we call it, goes back to the revolt of the Maccabees against the Greek occupation in the second century BCE. The holy temple had been desecrated. Jerusalem had been overrun and defeated. And yet, when the future of the Jewish people looked most bleak, a small group of idealists, led by a priest, succeeded in revolt against a powerful nation that had defeated us. The holy temple, which was a symbol of enlightenment to us, was once again consecrated, and the temple lamp which had gone out, was relit.
It was a miracle. That was the common consensus. But for those who wanted a more specific description of the miracle, there were differing opinions. Some felt that the miracle was that one flask of oil which should normally have lasted just a day, lasted eight days until more oil could be prepared for the temple lamp. Others saw the miracle in the fact that a little amateur army could overcome the prowess of a great nation. One of my favorite rabbis, said the miracle was that Jews were willing to fight at all. For me, the miracle is that even after total devastation, we are able to reorganize, fight evil, clean up the mess, and find what is sacred and holy.
If you’re wondering why it took eight days to prepare the oil for the temple lamp, this is how they would do it. They would take a sack of olives, and squeeze each one. The first drop that came out of the olives was collected. And that was the oil they used for the temple lamp. The lamp symbolized the temple. In our days it is the symbol of the State of Israel. Some of our sages saw the tending of the lamp as even more important than the activities surrounding sacrifices. At our family celebration, all of the children lit their own candles.
As a young man, I was greatly attracted to the arts. In part because the arts connect to values which are more lasting than our own individual lives. Knowing without doubt that I personally would eventually die, I wanted to be part of something that would last longer than I did. Afterwards, when I had children of my own, I started thinking of my children as a continuation of myself. Even after I’d die, my children would continue to live, and my blood would continue in them.
Last night, as I sat in a comfortable chair and watched my grandchildren playing, reading, making music… I asked myself, was I pleased? So many grandchildren… living and learning… healthier and happier than I was at their age. I looked at them all. And each one was different. Each was a world in himself or herself. Each with a distinct and separate personality. Not one of them was me. But there was comfort in the fact that these children are a part of this culture I love. And that they are continuing in their own way along the path I have walked. They’re starting where I got as an old man. And they’ll get further than I ever dreamed.
There have been ups and downs along the way, And I’m sure that they too will have their ups and downs. Honestly, most of them are more interested in sharing with me what they are learning these days, than listening to what I’ve learned through life. But it doesn’t matter that much to me. I see a continuation of the same values I love. And that’s enough for me. We ate potato pancakes and pizza. You know, potato pancakes are part of our tradition for this holiday. And pizza… well, pizza is always a good thing…