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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.
In 1954, Jim Lovell, who would later lead the Apollo 13 space mission, was flying his Banshee night fighter when his plane experienced a total electrical failure.
There he was, the middle of the ocean in the middle of the night, with no instrumentation and no way to find his ship. But as he looked out into the darkness, he noticed a glimmer of photo luminescent algae that had been stirred up in the wake of his aircraft carrier. He followed the trail back to his ship and landed safely.
If the lights hadn’t gone out, he never would have found his way home.
It’s fascinating to consider how our eyes are designed.
The story of a Great Flood can be found in virtually every human culture. However, the biblical record stands alone in its dramatic conclusion: as Noah emerges from the ark, the Almighty sets His rainbow in the heavens as a sign that never again will He visit the waters of devastation upon the earth.
Much has been made of the shape of the rainbow – an inverted bow to direct the arrows of divine wrath away from mankind. But is this a hopeful sign? Does it not imply that we are in fact deserving of destruction? Does it not contain a warning, that only because of God’s promise to Noah are we spared the natural consequences of our own moral corruption?
And what do the colors and beauty of the rainbow signify? Is it not incongruous to invoke something so beautiful as a reminder that a 4000 year-old covenant is all that stands between us and annihilation?
WANTING IT BOTH WAYS AND NO WAYS
In the old Peanuts comic strip, Linus once declared that, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.”
It’s no longer a joke. As human society grows ever more fractured, we see everyone else as either too traditional or too progressive, too dovish or too hawkish, too far left or too far right. Unity remains a dream we no longer believe in as we divide ourselves up into increasingly tribal enclaves.
Paradoxically, it is the strength of conviction that separates people from one another. Too many of us believe that our way is more “beautiful” than anyone else’s way, that only we are the chosen standard-bearers, and that we alone speak Truth while all others are heretics or infidels.
Why do we find it so difficult to celebrate our — dare I use the word — diversity? We give lip service to the value of multiculturalism, recognizing that our differences can make us greater than the sum of our parts. But then we use distinctiveness as a wedge to set ourselves apart from others.
In modern society, diversity often becomes a club to bludgeon into submission all whose sense of traditional values or personal integrity compels them to reject the moral anarchy that defines our times. Intolerance masquerades as forbearance, proclaiming an open-mindedness that is reserved only for those who conform to ideologically acceptable standards of cultural elites.
THE CHALLENGE OF MORAL EQUILIBRIUM
It was the same kind of violent division that brought the devastation of the Flood upon mankind. In that benighted generation, the law of the jungle drove human beings to an unthinkable level of bestial corruption. Had the Almighty not brought the waters of destruction upon the earth, human beings would surely have destroyed themselves.
Back then, it was selfishness and greed that tore society apart. Today, it is ego and ideology.
True, it’s not easy to achieve the delicate balance between acceptance on the one hand and conviction on the other. Tilting too far to one side catapults us toward moral dogmatism; tilting too far to the other sets our moral compass spinning in all directions.
So what is the solution?
The answer lies is seeing the rainbow as both beautiful and terrifying. It is a symbol of diversity and how much we can achieve by celebrating our differences; but simultaneously it is a reminder of how much destruction we can bring upon our world when differences become justification for divisiveness.
To truly love our fellow human beings we cannot retreat into ideological isolation. If we do, we will succeed only in marginalizing others in our own minds. Ultimately, we must take great care to chart a course between the extremes of ideology and accommodation.
So reach out to connect with someone outside your own close, closed, comfortable group. Engage people who think differently, not to debate but to exchange ideas and seek understanding. Remember as well that the most exquisite flowers, the most dramatic seascapes, and the most inspiring mountain peaks are those that reflect all the colors of the rainbow.
Two roads diverged in a wood and I –
I split the difference; don’t ask me why.
The truth of it is, I don’t remember why I strayed from the path.
No doubt it seemed like a good idea at the time. It was the second day of a five-day walking trip I had mapped out across the Lake District in northern England, hoping to channel the spirit of William Wordsworth and find inspiration in the exquisite British landscape.
But after the deflating experience of my first day’s outing, I should have been far more circumspect before turning down the road of impetuosity.
My little adventure began as I sallied forth from the youth hostel in Kendal for a twelve-mile hike to Windermere. I had plenty of backpacking experience, having twice hiked the Grand Canyon and once crested the Sierra Nevada. So I felt no cause for concern as I set off on this leisurely ramble along well-trodden trails.
The first lesson I might have remembered from my backpacking days was that any hike requires preparation.
Published in this month’s issue of The Wagon Magazine
If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
It’s a sad reality of human nature: we miss out enjoying the blessings that fill our lives because we take them for granted. Until we don’t have them any more.
How many hours do we fritter away on texts and tweets and Facebook updates? Are these more satisfying than friends and family, more enlivening than smelling the roses and gazing at the stars? Not in a thousand years.
We think we can have it both ways. After all, the roses will be there tomorrow; and the stars will be there forever.
Until they aren’t. Having been bred for beauty, many of our roses have no fragrance whatsoever. And most of us have never beheld the wonder of the Milky Way. It disappeared decades ago behind the veil of urban pall.
AWAKE, MY GLORY!
Nature has its own way of reminding us to pay attention. Sometimes it’s through extraordinary beauty. And sometimes it’s through awesome power. Last month, the light of the sun disappeared at midday as the eclipse moved across the country. This month, the fury of life-giving water uprooted the lives of millions.
The misery inflicted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma was horrific to watch, and exponentially more horrific to endure. From thousands of miles away, Americans shook their heads at scenes of devastated communities, shattered homes, and displaced families. We wrote relief checks, offered prayers, gave thanks for our own safety, and carried on with our lives.
We wished we could do more. But what more we could do?
Consider this: Maimonides writes that anyone who hears of human suffering and does not respond with repentance and good deed is a cruel person.
The most effective way to make the world a better place is by making ourselves better people. Yes, I can work to save the rainforests and save the whales. I can raise money for refugees and volunteer my time to Habitat for Humanity. I can do these things, and I should.
Ultimately, however, the only thing I can be certain of changing is myself.
If I give charity out of guilt, I’m really just bribing my conscience to leave me alone. If I write a check because I think I’m going to relieve human suffering, I’m merely indulging my ego. It’s true, of course, that the recipients will benefit from any act of giving regardless of motivation. But am I benefitting myself as well?
LEARNING TO LOVE
Acts of kindness and charity should be expressions of sharing another’s pain – a natural, reflexive response to human suffering. When I give what I can, whether a lot or a little, I join with others to raise our collective voice and proclaim that we will not stand idly by and abandon others to their fate, even if we have no real control over how fate will deal with them.
Purely motivated giving transforms us into giving people. By taking action when others are in need we learn to love our fellows as we love ourselves. And when we do, we become more appreciative of the relationships that are the source of true happiness.
The Jewish prayer book contains a series of blessings we recite each morning to acknowledge who we are and why we exist. Among those blessings we find the following:
Blessed are You, L-rd, our G-d, King of the universe, who stretches out the earth above the waters.
Our place in this world is precarious. The laws of nature operate with both granite consistency and fickle unpredictability. If we want to weather the storms of life, we need the support of others, which means we have to be there when others need support from us.
As individuals, we are exposed and vulnerable to the vagaries of happenstance. As a community, we find that the winds of fortune will not overturn our lives, and the waters of uncertainty will never extinguish our spirit. Out of the darkness of misfortune, the light of fellowship will shine down on us like the brightest of stars.