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There’s nothing like becoming a grandfather. Normally pulled in all directions by the endless jobs on my to-do list, I forget all about them every time I hold my three-month-old granddaughter and stare into her eyes.
Are you thinking what I’m thinking? I ask her silently.
The answer is: yes.
According to a study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, making eye contact with an infant causes the brain patterns of both you and the baby to fall into sync with one another.
A similar phenomenon has been observed among high school students working collaboratively in the classroom and among adults who reach agreement in discussion. Of course, it’s fairly predictable that by thinking alike people cause their brain waves become synchronized. What the new research shows is that the same thing happens independent of any exchange of ideas or information.
This kind of sympathetic connection can be wonderful when it brings people together by forming a common bond. But it can also be enormously dangerous.
And it provides a profound insight into the historical backdrop behind the Festival of Chanukah.
The battle against Greek domination was only one of many struggles against oppression in Jewish history. The Babylonians tried to cut off the Jews from their spiritual identity by destroying the Temple in Jerusalem and exiling the nation from its land. Under Persian rule, the wicked Haman hatched his plot to exterminate every Jewish man, woman, and child. The Romans combined the tactics of all the oppressors who came before them in a relentless campaign that lasted for centuries.
But it was the Syrian-Greeks who employed the most insidious stratagem: cultural assimilation. In the language of the sages, their objective was to darken the eyes of the Jewish people.
The culture of Greece dazzled the world with its entrancing beauty and magnetic sophistication. But it was essentially a culture of form over substance. The Olympic games celebrated physical prowess over inner character. The art of sophistry revered oratorical elegance over soundness of argument. Greek society idealized both the human form and the human mind, elevating humanity to the level of deification.
In contrast, Jewish thought asserts that Man is a perpetual work in progress, always incomplete by design, always striving toward self-improvement, always with a mission defined by an Authority greater than himself. As such, every tenet of the Jews and their philosophy was anathema to the thinking of their Greek overlords.
But the glittery aestheticism of Greek culture was irresistible to some. The Jewish Hellenists looked into the eyes of their masters and imagined a meeting of minds, a new syncretism whereby the most attractive aspects of Judaism and Grecianism might be blended into harmonious unification.
This was their undoing. A culture that values inner truth and substance can never merge with a culture that places the highest premium on external form. And a society that worships itself will never suffer a people who affirm loyalty to a Higher Power.
It was inevitable, therefore, that some Jews would give themselves over entirely to the ways of Greece and abandon their heritage, and that others would open their eyes and recognize that they could only survive by turning away from the seductive sparkle of Greek secularism.
Herein lies the compelling symbolism of the Chanukah candles. There is nothing more blinding than brightly flashing lights before our eyes that overwhelm our senses and bewitch us with their intensity. Ultimately, we descend into the most dangerous kind of darkness, the kind in which we lose all awareness that we cannot see.
The antidote is to turn away from the enticing light, to look into the darkness, to search for the source of faithful illumination that can guide us along the path of spiritual integrity. Like the canopy of heaven whose glory only reveals itself far from the city lights, the flames of the Chanukah menorah shine bright out of the deepest darkness, when the days are shortest and the cold of winter has descended.
In a world ablaze with the deceptive light of moral anarchy and empty icons, the Chanukah candles remind us that the light of enduring truth can still be found by turning away from the glitter and by gazing into the hidden sources of timeless wisdom.
It seemed like such a good idea at the time.
I took one look at the picture in the do-it-yourself book my wife brought home from the library and immediately fell in love.
Doesn’t every kid want a tree house? I certainly did. However, we had no suitable trees in our yard, so the idea was a non-starter.
But now it was different. With my own children just old enough to enjoy it, that big elm tree in the center of our yard seemed heaven-sent for such a purpose. The creative design cried out to be turned into reality, and I made up my mind on the spot. My wife didn’t even try to talk me out of it.
The illustration showed how the tree house would seemingly grow right out of the elm’s trunk, the base hovering six feet above the ground and the top about as far beneath the lowest branches. Four sturdy beams would angle down from the corners of the floor, secured into notches cut out of the hoary bark and held in place by railroad spikes. Beams on the top would mirror those on the bottom, over which panels would form a sloping roof.
It looked simple enough.
Readers of a certain age may remember an old Goodyear tire commercial with the tag line, “You can pay me now, or pay me later.”
The applications go way beyond auto repair. That’s what Shaomin Li, professor of international business at Virginia’s Old Dominion University, discovered on a business trip to Taiwan.
As he was being chauffeured from one venue to the next, Professor Li noticed that his host always backed into parking lot spaces, opting for often tricky and laborious maneuvering over the simpler method of pulling in straight forward.
Detecting a wider pattern of behavior, Professor Li conducted his own experiment. He discovered that 88% of Chinese drivers back in when they park, in contrast to 6% of American drivers.
“All of a sudden,” recounts Professor Li, “I said, gee – isn’t this delayed gratification?”
We shouldn’t jump to conclusions based on a single study, but this observation does not appear in a vacuum. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell investigates the popular stereotype that transplanted Asians excel academically and professionally compared with homegrown Americans.
Mr. Gladwell discovered that the stereotype is much more accurate among southern Chinese than among northern Chinese, and he identifies a single reason for the difference: