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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.
Moshe was 11 years old in July 1941, when the Nazis marched into Lvov and tore him from his home and the Chassidic court of the Grand Rabbi of Bobov. The warm comfort of Torah study and Sabbath melodies vanished amidst the cold misery of the Mauthausen concentration camp.
But Moshe never lost hope. Whenever he felt ready to crumple under the bitter anguish of hunger and disease, his favorite tune from his rabbi’s Sabbath table would echo in his memory, giving him the strength to go on.
One frigid afternoon in December 1944 the inmates were herded into the showers for “delousing,” then chased back into the camp square for a headcount, dripping and naked in the subzero weather. Claiming a discrepancy in the prisoner count, the Kapos left the Jews to stand shivering on the frozen ground.
An hour ticked by, minute by painful minute. The water on their skin turned to frost. Then, one by one, bodies began to fall.
14-year-old Moshe felt himself freezing to death, and the snow beneath his feet seemed to offer welcome relief from his torment. But in the next moment he heard the Bobover Rebbe’s voice in his ears: “Don’t fall, my young friend. You must survive! A chassid sings; a chassid dances. It is the secret of our survival!”
Moshe began humming his favorite tune. Slowly, his frozen limbs began to move and he began to dance, leaving bloody footprints in the snow, until the Bobover melody warmed his heart and revived his spirit.
THE MUSIC OF EMPTY SPACES
What is the mysterious power of music? And how do we quantify the difference between the melodies that make us smile with tranquil joy, those that make us clap our hands, and those that make us leap to our feet and start to dance?
According to a study published in April by neuroscientists at Denmark’s Aarhus University, our dance reflex may have more to do with the beat that isn’t than with the beat that is.
“[It’s] not the ones that have very little complexity and not the ones that had very, very high complexity,” Maria Witek, the study’s lead author, told NPR, “but the patterns that had a sort of a balance between predictability and complexity.”
In other words, songs that have layered rhythm — a repetitive underlying beat that merges with a syncopated pattern interrupted by rhythmic gaps — entice our minds to fill in those empty spaces with our own creative expressions. Too much regularity and the brain can find nothing to add; too little regularity and the brain can’t figure out how to engage.
This study may have a basis in Torah. The 18th Century Torah giant Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch defines the grammatical root rokad which we translate as “dance,” as having the connotation of skipping or frolicking. There is an experimental playfulness that manifests itself in the natural human desire to fill in empty spaces, dark corners, and awkward silences. When we feel something is missing, our creative juices start flowing in ways that often have to be stemmed by our more cautious impulses and our better judgment. But we dare not stifle those inclinations, lest the fear of taking chances causes us to miss out on priceless opportunities. Always, we strive for balance.
Traditionally, rokad means to dance in a circle, symbolizing the coming together of beginnings and endings, the totality of the human condition as bounded by the circumference of the material world, and our interdependence upon one another in fulfillment of a shared destiny. There is a sense of completion in a circle, of restored unity and achieved purpose. We dance with joy upon attaining the feeling of security that comes from filling in the gaps, tying off loose ends, and imposing order on chaos; we revel in the blended satisfaction of finishing one task in preparation for the new mission that lies ahead.
THE CIRCLE OF THE RIGHTEOUS
A famous Talmudic passage seems to bear this out. Ulla, in the name of Rabbi Eliezer, foretells that with the arrival of the messianic era, the righteous will dance together in a circle and, while the Almighty sits at the center in the Garden of Eden, each will point and proclaim, “Behold, this is our G-d.”
According to Chassidic teachings, every tzaddik — every truly righteous person — fears that his own service of G-d is imperfect or incomplete; nevertheless, he finds solace in the certainty that others more righteous than he have perfected their own service in absolute fulfillment of the Divine will. But at the end of days, teaches Ulla, G-d will show every tzaddik that his divine service was accepted and acceptable; each tzaddik will see that, irrespective of his trepidations, his own personal path was proper and correct.
Ironically, it is the very self-doubt of these tzaddikim that pushes them to new levels of spiritual refinement and self-knowledge. It is the conflict and the tension between the perceived and the hidden that drives them on in pursuit of ultimate truth and self-perfection. They know that they will never reach absolute enlightenment — the “center of the circle” — but they never stop trying to bring illumination to the dark and empty places of this world.
The Festival of Sukkos culminates in the holiday of Shemini Atzeres, when synagogues transform from houses of quiet reverence to halls of joyous song and dance. The Chassidic tradition explains further why we celebrate this on this day by dancing in circles: this is our celebration of the “marriage” of the Jewish people and the Torah and, as we join together circling a common point of focus, we experience for a brief moment the light of absolute unity and absolute truth.
Rabbi Zev Leff expands on this idea, observing that as the righteous change positions and look toward the center, they “see” G-d from the perspective of those around them.
Simultaneously, they will be able to appreciate that the different styles and approaches of others were not only correct but filled the gaps in their own service. As we dance, we look forward with joy the End of Days when the Divine will is completely revealed and every man, woman, and child witnesses the fulfillment of the prophecy, “They will no longer have to teach — each man his fellow, each man his brother… for all of them will know Me” (Jeremiah 31:33-34).
THE MELODY OF CREATION
But those words of Jeremiah are for days yet to come, and attaining that future depends upon navigating an ever-shifting course between the familiar and the unknown, the expected and the mysterious. The rhythm of our lives can lull us into a sense of complacency and false comfort if its beats are too regular, or can confound us into paralysis if its cadence defies logic and predictability.
As a template for the challenge that defines our existence, G-d created three types of creatures: malachim, animals, and human beings.
A malach is a being of pure spirituality (translated imprecisely as angel), residing in such proximity to the unfiltered divine radiance of the Almighty that there is no room for individual ego or individual desire.
The spiritual “music” that a malach hears is so structured, so complete, so insistently harmonious that a malach has no free will; it can do nothing other than conform to the will of its Creator.
On the other extreme are animals, which are so distant from G-d that they can do nothing other than follow the physical urgings of instinct and nature. The “music” they hear is completely unstructured, rendering them effectively deaf to any higher calling.
In the middle there is Man, a creature uniquely suspended between the heavens and the earth, possessing a spiritual soul encased in a physical body, pulled heavenward by the promptings of his divine nature and weighed down by the animalistic impulses of his material environment, locked in an eternal struggle wherein each of his inclinations vies for supremacy over the other.
We perceive just enough to know the truth, and just enough is hidden from us so that we can deny the truth. The music we hear has an inescapable rhythm, but with gaps and spaces that require our participation if we want to fully appreciate its harmonies.
If we disengage, our animal nature takes over, shutting us off from the Divine. If we rise to the occasion, we reach a level higher than any malach, for we have reached it on our own through the self-determination of free will.
As the Jewish people were bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem for the first time, King David danced with such abandon that his wife Michal chastised him for an unseemly display of joy. But David was not rebuffed.
After a lifetime checkered by dark episodes and painful uncertainty, David was on the threshold of fulfilling his purpose as King of Israel. His whole life had been a “dance” in response to trials and tribulations. After all those challenges had led him to this consummation, what else could he do but dance for joy?
King David’s message should guide us through the Festival season and onward with each and every day. In moments of cacophony and seeming chaos, listen for the rhythm of Creation, hold fast onto the order that defines a life of Torah study and observance, and take joy in the opportunity to rise above the noise and confusion using the unique talents and opportunities that the Creator has given you.
Dance with joy, and joy will make you dance.
The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, begins this Wednesday evening. Our New Year’s resolutions are not optional. We have an obligation to reflect on how we are living our lives as we celebrate the anniversary of the creation of the universe. So I’m taking the opportunity to revisit these thoughts which, I believe, have relevance to all of us.
Best wishes for the coming year.
Nobody likes fundraising dinners. The speeches are dry, the menu is dull, and the seating arrangements seem to have been drawn up by the Marquis de Sade. No one looks forward to these affairs, and we attend them only out of a sense of obligation.
Since one dinner I attended last year, however, I have become more wary than ever of this kind of event.
The evening began unremarkably and proceeded unremarkably — up to a point. The food was better than usual, the speeches ran longer than usual, the company was as good as could be hoped for, and I never saw the dinner plate that slipped from the tray of the passing waiter and struck me squarely on the forehead.
“I didn’t hit you, did I?” asked the waiter in response to the alarmed gasps and cries from the people who shared my table, several of whom assured him that he had, indeed, scored a direct hit.
“Are you all right?” he asked, inevitably. A silly question, really.
A pound-and-a-half of glazed ceramic packs quite a wallop after accelerating at thirty-two feet-per-second-squared from a height of six feet in the air.
At least I was still conscious, still sitting upright, and I didn’t think I was bleeding.
“Get a doctor,” someone said.
“He doesn’t need a doctor,” said someone else. “Get him a lawyer.”
The manager arrived with an ice pack. “Here, take this.”
“I was hoping for scotch with my ice,” I said.
He laughed, but didn’t bring me any scotch. “I’ll need your name and address, sir,” he said, handing me a pen and paper.
“Don’t sign anything,” yelled someone from the next table.
I scribbled my vital statistics. “I’m really very sorry, sir,” he said.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Just the scotch.” He laughed again and went away. I had figured the manager would offer me vouchers for a complimentary night’s stay. He hadn’t. (I never even got a letter of apology.) I hadn’t gotten my whisky, either.
I began regaining my bearings to a medley of more lawsuit jokes. From across the table, however, my next door neighbor offered the only profound comment of the evening: “What were you thinking about before you got hit?”
I knew exactly what he meant. According to Talmudic philosophy, there are no accidents, no coincidences, no random events. Everything comes about through the guiding hand of Divine Providence, the spiritual imperative that governs how the external world acts upon each and every one of us. In other words, if I got smacked on the head, I must have had it coming to me.
This is a far cry from the popular notion that whatever I want, I have coming to me. As much as contemporary culture may insist that privileges and entitlements are birthrights, the Talmud recognizes only our responsibilities, both to other individuals and to society. When we live up to our obligations, we may expect certain rewards to come our way. But if we do receive an apparently undeserved blow, great or small, we should assume that the equilibrium of the cosmic scales of justice somehow needed to be set back in balance, and we should reflect upon the message that has just been sent us from on high.
Sometimes we can easily identify a concrete lesson to glean from such mishaps. Other times not. But the principle holds, even when we can’t perceive any clear cause and effect: this was necessary; now we need to brush ourselves off and get on with life.
The traditional Yom Kippur liturgy provides a poignant example in its narrative concerning Rabbi Ishmael, the High Priest, who was cruelly tortured to death at the whim of the Roman governor’s daughter.
The heavenly court protested in outrage before the throne of G-d: “Is this the reward for living a life committed to holiness?” they demanded.
“Be silent!” commanded the Almighty, “or I will return the world to void and nothingness.”
The incomparable 18th century genius, Rabbi Elijah of Vilna, explains G-d’s reply with this allegory:
A king once received a gift of fine Turkish wool, the most luxurious fabric in the world. It was so beautiful, in fact, that the king could not bear to think that even a tiny piece of it should end up as scrap on the cutting floor. He went to every tailor in his kingdom and asked each to make him a suit without letting even one thread of the wool go to waste. But every tailor claimed that such a feat was beyond his ability.
Finally, the king found a tailor who agreed to do the job. When the king returned to the tailor’s shop on the appointed date, he discovered that the tailor had indeed produced an exceptional suit of clothes. The king was elated.
“But have you fulfilled your promise?” asked the king. “Did you use every thread?”
“You really don’t know,” answered the tailor. “And the only way you will ever will find out is if you tear your beautiful suit apart and lay out all the pieces in the original shape of the fabric.”
Similarly, we often think that life is full of unfair knocks or is missing essential pieces. But to know for sure, we would have to see all of human history undone before our eyes. Only then would we have the right to assert that there were flaws in the slow sculpture of creation.
The days from Rosh HaShonnah to Yom Kippur — the traditional season of judgment — afford us the opportunity to strengthen our trust that the Master Tailor has done His job well, that He has stitched together the fabric of eternity according to a plan He understands far better than we do — even when bricks, or china plates, fall out of the sky upon our heads.
Should I have sued the hotel? the waiter? the school holding the event? the principal, who was speaking when I got hit? No doubt, I could have found any number of lawyers eager to take the case. If a woman could receive 4 million dollars for spilling a cup of coffee in her own lap, this should be worth at least as much.
But life is full of honest accidents resulting in superficial scrapes and bruises. It’s better for us (and better instruction for our children) to look for what we can learn from life’s bumps and knocks, not to look for whom we can blame and how much we can squeeze out of them.
The waiter returned, contrite and apologetic, perhaps more shaken than I was. “In twelve years this has never happened to me,” he said. Evidently, he also had a date with Providence. “Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?”
“I wouldn’t mind a scotch on the rocks.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
He did. It wasn’t four million dollars, but it was better than a knock on the head.
“The Jews started it all – and by it I mean so many of the things we care about, the underlying values that make all of us, Jew and Gentile, believer and atheist, tick. Without the Jews, we would see the world through different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings … We would think with a different mind, interpret all our experiences differently, draw different conclusions from the things that befall us. And we would set a different course for our lives.”
Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels
It all began on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, when Moses ascended Sinai to receive the Torah. This week we celebrate the holiday of Shavuos when, on the fiftieth day after the exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people became a nation guided by divine law and moral freedom.
In an age when individual autonomy, relative truth, and non-judgmentalism have become the lodestones of our new “enlightenment,” we would be well-served to reflect on how critical personal responsibility and a well-calibrated moral compass are as the bedrock of civil society and a healthy world.
To learn more about the Festival of Shavuos, click here.
Raise your glass of champagne to toast the new year. And then, before you take your first sip, ask yourself this question: where do the bubbles come from?
You see them, don’t you – those strings of tiny bubbles rising steadily from the bottom of your fluted goblet? They seem to appear out of nothing and come from nowhere. And yet they keep coming, like refugees from some parallel universe escaping through an inter-dimensional portal, yearning to be free.
The explanation is quite simple. What is more compelling is how the mystery of champagne bubbles can lead us to victory in the modern culture wars.
It can also provide a deeper insight into history’s first culture war, which culminated in the miracle of Chanukah.
TRAPPED IN THE DEPTHS
An average glass of champagne contains about 20 million microscopic bubbles, produced when fermentation under pressure forces carbon gas into wine. The relatively few bubbles that rise to the surface burst and release their CO2. As for the rest, the even distribution of internal pressure across the surface of each bubble keeps the gas trapped within.
Along the interior surface of the glass, however, are tiny imperfections. When bubbles come in contact with any such imperfection, the slightest change in pressure at the point of contact is enough to cause them to burst. Once released, the gas inside streams upward to the surface in a race for freedom.
Now think of champagne as an allegory for life.
A WORLD OF BUBBLE-DWELLERS
Never in history has a society been more comfortable than in this generation. Our homes are climate controlled within a two-degree range. Our cars have automatic entry, heated leather seats, and full entertainment centers. We buy our groceries and holiday gifts with the click of a mouse and wait for them to be delivered by bonded messenger or drone. We text people in the same room and find it too burdensome to open our email.
And what do we have to show for it? We have lost all ability to cope with inconvenience, delay, and change. A website refusing to load, a text not returned in 15 seconds, or our favorite TV show preempted by an amber alert — these are the crises of our times, the insufferable challenges of our era. It’s both laughable and tragic to imagine how we would manage had we to face the hardships of the crossing of the Mayflower, the Great Depression, or the Battle of the Bulge — let alone Auschwitz or the Soviet gulag. The plight of Syrian refugees right now across the sea is too horrific for us to even contemplate.
So we don’t. We’re too comfortable inside our bubbles, insulated from the cold, hard realities that most humans have had to endure through the ages. We hide away from the rest of the word, until something pricks the surface to burst our bubbles — leaving us in pieces and gasping for breath.
But really, we should be grateful for those pinpricks, both great and small. Like the gas that remains trapped beneath the surface, our own potential for greatness remains dormant within us until we are forced to confront the sharp edges of life. Instead of trying to hide from them, we need to prepare ourselves for when they inevitably arrive.
HIGHS AND LOWS
This was the state of affairs in Judea under the rule of the Seleucid Empire 2180 years ago. The prevailing culture of Greek philosophy worshipped aesthetic idealism. Graceful lines, elegant syllogisms, and harmonic symmetry represented the highest expression of human civilization.
But it also represented the lowest. Where the ancient Greeks revered physical and intellectual beauty, they abandoned children with physical deformities or mental impairments and left them to die. They valued the philosophic sophistication of their greatest thinkers less for its content and more for the polished sophistry of its expression. They ruthlessly stamped out all dissonance – as they did by sentencing Socrates, the greatest among them, to death for the crime of exposing the logical contradictions of their philosophy.
Enamored with the cultural idealism of Greece, Jewish Hellenists believed they could blend their practice of Judaism with the prettified ways of their masters. But Jewish philosophy demands that we challenge the external status quo, that we push our personal boundaries outward even as we strive to refine our commitment to the traditions on which our nation is founded. It is a prickly discipline, one in which bubbles cannot long survive.
And so the culture of Greece tried to swallow the soul of Judaism. But in the end, the weak rose up against the strong and the few prevailed over the many. Instead of capitulating to the apparent inevitability of their defeat, the Jews fought for their physical and spiritual lives. By doing so, they broke through the boundaries of what anyone imagined possible, and they set free the potential that would have remained forever hidden if the Greeks had not tried to crush it into non-existence.
And when the hidden spark of determination inside them caught fire, it light up the darkness of exile, just like the tiny container of oil that burned miraculously for eight days – a sign of divine favor because they refused to exchange spiritual identity for the comfort of cultural superficiality.
When we reject comfortable confinement and fight our way out of the bubbles we live in, there is no limit to the miracles we can expect to see in our daily lives.
There is a story of a prince, a true prodigal son, whose antics and excesses taxed his father’s patience until the king, with no other recourse, sent his son penniless into exile to learn responsibility and humility.
The prince wandered from place to place, half-starving, unqualified for any craft or labor, until he finally found work as a shepherd in a distant land. The job of shepherding was not overly difficult, but the sun burned the prince’s back by day, the wind froze him at night, and the rain soaked through his clothes in winter.
Other shepherds built little huts to protect them from the elements, but whenever the poor prince tried to build himself a hut it toppled over in the first strong breeze.
Years went by, until at last the prince heard that the king was coming to the province where he lived. There was a custom in the kingdom that people would write their wishes upon scraps of paper and throw them at the king’s carriage. Any requests that the king picked up a read would be granted immediately. So the prince positioned himself along the parade route and, as the king’s carriage passed, he took careful aim and tossed his note.
The paper fell at the king’s feet. He unrolled it and, recognizing his son’s handwriting, he began to weep. For the note asked if the king would give the prince a little hut to protect him from the sun and the wind and the rain.
“My son could have asked to return to the palace,” cried the king, “but he no longer knows he is a prince.”
So it was in the days of the Maccabees, when the Jewish people were so steeped in the physical aestheticism and indulgences of Greek culture that many of them forgot that they were in exile, forgot that they were inheritors of a priceless spiritual legacy, forgot that they were children of the King.
But a few didn’t forget. A few risked their lives to honor the Sabbath, to circumcise their sons, to study the Torah of their fathers and grandfathers, to preserve the divine spark that had guided their ancestors for a thousand years. And, when their moment came, those few took up arms against their oppressors and fought for the privilege of living as Jews. They recaptured the Holy Temple and, as they rekindled the menorah, divine light flooded the streets and courtyards of Jerusalem, pushing off the darkness of exile, waking the people from cultural forgetfulness, inspiring a generation to remember its ancient roots cast its aspirations once more toward the heavens.
Today, 2,180 years later, we too live in an age of spiritual darkness, when the loudest and most persistent voices in our surrounding culture cry out to expunge every mention of the divine, to condemn every moral judgment, to sanctify every perversion in the name of “tolerance.” We live in an era of unprecedented material comfort and convenience, tranquilizing our bodies and our minds so that we can easily stifle the yearning of our souls.
But when the days are shortest and the nights are coldest, just then can a little light shine forth and dispel much darkness. Like a lighthouse guiding a ship home, the lights of the Chanukah menorah can draw us back from the abyss of spiritual oblivion. And as we add candle upon candle and light upon light, the growing radiance of the menorah reminds us of the divine flame that has guided us through the darkness of exile and saved us from the darkness of assimilation for generation after generation.
If we, like the Hellenist Jews, allow the material values of contemporary culture to shape our thinking and guide our actions, then we have truly forgotten who we are. Like the prince whose soul longed for nothing but a little hut to protect him from the sun and the rain, we will be destined to live out our days in futility.
But if we cling to all that which is noble within us, if the values of our tradition drive us to perform acts of kindness and charity, to devote a few moments each day to heartfelt and meditative prayer, to treat neighbors and strangers alike with respect, to set an example of morality and character for our children — then we will have rekindled the spark of divinity inside us, and we will have earned the privilege to have our Father, the King, bring us home.
Originally published in 2003 by Jewish World Review