December 2, 1999
Chanukah begins this evening, and not a moment too soon.
When my daughter was young and the sun rose and set on her every lesson with alphabet and equation, I bemoaned any gap between Christmas and the Festival of Lights. The closer, the better, if you ask me. How better to illustrate the primal lesson of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the pleasure and challenge of a Jew living simultaneously in two civilizations.
I leaped to it. December was one of the rare months when, as a Jewish parent, I knew exactly where I stood. I had no miserable self-doubts, no trouble teaching Samantha that we Jews had our own holiday, and no, it did not involve a pine tree, but was based on a military victory fought to preserve freedom against oppression. Blue and silver are as pretty as red and green.
The more Christmas trees were in my face, the stronger I became and the more latke recipes I perfected. I knew what was important: apple sauce or sour cream? Bring on Donner and Blitzen, and a sleigh filled with toys. Just bring them to me while the dreidel spins and the menorah still sheds its light.
Inevitably, there were years when the holidays, like Peter Pan and his shadow, did not line up. Then I felt talentless, bereft of metaphor. The rest of the world was illuminated, while we were already dark. Chanukah almost always comes "early," and doesn't that say it all?
Well, maybe it says nothing much. In the end, it was the parent, not just the child, who learned Chanukah's central lesson, that things that are not alike should not be compared. In truth, it was not Chanukah but the autumn festival of Sukkot that set my family right. Once we took to the pleasure of decorating our little hut each fall, the whole calendar fell into place, nothing was missing from the Jewish festival year and Chanukah was free to be its own minor self.
Nevertheless, here it is, this last Chanukah -- yes, of the blasted millennium -- and, the holiday is early again. This year, in a state of Y2K overload, I'm glad because of it. I'm glad we have small, low-key Chanukah instead of a millennium blast. It turns out that a streamlined, svelte Chanukah, like the young adult who now lights the candles, has new lessons to teach.
There's a Talmudic debate between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai about how to light the menorah: Do we follow Hillel and start with one candle (plus the Shamash, the Helper) adding an additional candle every day until the whole menorah is ablaze? Or, do we follow the far less popular Shammai and light all seven of the candles at once on the first night, subtracting one each evening thereafter?
For a child, Hillel is the obvious winner. We add a candle for the eight nights because every addition increases joy. The light of the three-minute multicolored candle is so lovely, it's a natural metaphor for everything we want a child to feel: enthusiasm, progress, optimism at life's vast opportunity and hope.
But as an adult it's a different story. For me, on this Chanukah before the change of the century, maybe Shammai, the ultimate Less is More rabbi, has a point.
When I first heard Shammai's midrash I was still a new parent. His Scrooge-like withholding of candles filled me with dread. Decrease the light? Who among us would volunteer to go gentle into that dark good night?
Maybe Shammai looked into the future and saw the frenzied apocalyptic visions of the millennium that we are living through now. The lessening light, seems under the circumstances, to be quite right.
First, as adults, we know that nothing lasts forever. Our children grow, our parents age, our careers are marked. The great miracle taught by Shammai's declining light is the reclaiming, harnessing and enjoyment of the energy that we have. In a society which defines achievement in ever-grander possessions, and sees progress in size, maybe just for one week it is heroic to see the miracle in the small.
In a spiritual dimension, diminishing light makes sense too. Zen practice tells us to experiment getting up from the opposite side of the bed, just for the sake of surprise. Well, decreasing the candles surprises us, allowing us to experience what Rav Chaim Soleveitchik calls the triumph of quality over quantity. The miracle of Chanukah, Soleveitchik states, is that the oil burned more efficiently. You can do more with less. The ever-lessening flame makes rededication more explicit, and reconnects us to the Light of Creation by which, legend says, we are able to see the whole earth including the world to come.
Finally, is the right commentary upon Jewish history. Life Magazine this month reminds us that the millennium is, at base, an honor to the message of Jesus, that his message lives on. Jews, too, have lived on, despite the Inquisition, the pogroms, the Holocaust, Diaspora. And look what we have made of it all, emerging as more than victims, more than survivors. We began the millennium in exile, but we're ending it at home, with a state of our own and an ethical and universal message that grows in relevance daily, one even Christians take to heart.
Whether you add or subtract, the blessing is in the light. Happy Chanukah.
Join Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of the Jewish Journal, for a conversation with actor Edward James Olmos on "Minorities in the Media: Where Are They?" at the Skirball Cultural Center on Sunday, Dec. 12 at 11 a.m.
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.