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It happened when John F. Kennedy appeared at his presidential inauguration without a hat. One instant of astonishment, followed by men’s hats instantaneously dropping out of style.
It happened when Michelle Obama began appearing sleeveless as First Lady. A few days of disdain and mockery from the right, after which virtually every female commentator on Fox News had shed her sleeves.
And currently, it has happened with Donald Trump’s unfiltered attacks on anyone who dares to question or oppose him. After excoriating the president for his vitriol and divisiveness, his detractors on the left have used the exact same tactics in their campaign against him.
This has nothing to do with taking sides.
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.
Parents worry about children. It’s what we do.
When they’re infants, we worry about every sniffle and cough. When they’re in grade school, we worry about bumps and bruises. When they enter adolescence, we worry about their hormones and teenage angst. As they become young adults, we worry about them finding their way in life.
So I understand it when people ask if I’m worried about my son in the Israeli army. But many of them don’t understand my answer.
All in all, I think he’s safer than he’s ever been.
It wasn’t part of the plan. After college, with a good job waiting for him in New York, he went to Israel for a few months of spiritual R & R in the Jewish homeland. But almost from the moment he arrived, he knew that he wanted to stay. And if he was going to live as an Israeli, he wanted to do his part to defend his country and his fellow Jews.
With barely a second thought, he became a Lone Soldier.
He found the unit he wanted – the Gadsar Reconnaissance Division of the Nahal Brigade. He was attracted by the division’s reputation for quiet determination, and he eagerly awaited the challenge of proving himself fit for an elite combat unit.
His first goal was to complete the gibush – a 3 ½ day selection trial of relentless physical rigor. Of the 15 prospective soldiers in his group, four dropped out after three hours. The rest made it all the way to the end. And in the end, he made the cut.
My son was five years older than most of the other guys – a huge difference at that age – and had to obey and respect commanders much younger than himself. But he also found that his age elicited among his peers an expectation of maturity. With that perception came a sense of responsibility to live up to what others expected.
The 14-month training proved always demanding, frequently tedious, sometimes painful and – on occasion – seemingly pointless. But he soon recognized the advantages of discipline and learned to trust the wisdom of his commanders. As his taskmasters drove him to do things he would never have done on his own and develop skills he never imagined he would want or need, he began to discover his own extraordinary potential.
He mastered weaponry, marksmanship, navigation, camouflage, demolition, and hand-to-hand combat. Above all, he acquired the self-confidence that comes from having been trained and tested – and, with it, the mindset for success in every aspect of life.
He came to value the camaraderie that comes from a shared sense of purpose. His world view grew broader and deeper. He learned to sympathize with the plight of the Palestinian people and to simultaneously loathe the corruption of Palestinian leaders who exploit their own people by perpetuating a culture of terror for political advantage.
As a Lone Soldier, having left his own parents and siblings halfway around the world, he found himself in a strange twilight zone of independence without isolation. He enjoyed the warm affection of an Israeli family that adopted him as a son, and the security of knowing that his superiors were always looking out for his welfare. And from the comments of his fellows, he gained new insights about himself:
“You chose to come over and do this – that’s absolutely crazy.”
“What is it with you? You act like you enjoy being here.”
“Dude, you have really good table manners.”
In a world of distracted, spoiled, and self-absorbed adult-children who don’t know who they are and don’t care where they’re going, my son has been trained to look for opportunities, respond to the unexpected, and navigate his way through any challenges and around any obstacles that life may throw at him.
More important, he has cultivated a sense of personal and national identity, an awareness that he is not just an individual but part of something far greater than himself – which makes him greater than anything he could become on his own. He has learned to take responsibility for himself and has developed a desire to engage the future rather than merely wait for it to arrive. He wants to make the world a better place, and he understands that the best way to do that is by making himself a better person.
In many ways I envy him and his comrades the opportunity they have, and it saddens me that more young people don’t choose to similarly challenge themselves. Most of us don’t begin life well-prepared for life, irrespective of our schooling or our vocational training. We squander so much thought and effort trying to figure things out on the fly, trying to play catch-up as we struggle with our careers and in our relationships.
We are all soldiers in the army of Mankind, all warriors on the battlefield of life. I’m grateful that my son has what so few of us have – the training and experience to meet those battles, to step forward into life with skill and self-assurance. And I’m proud that he has discovered that true joy comes from commitment to a higher purpose and higher values.
So to those who wonder why I’m not more worried about my son, all I can say is this: what on earth do I have to worry about?