Chanukah is soon upon us, and we all know what that means.
The worst collection of Jewish music ever assembled and recycled every few hours–aka the Chanukah Channel on SiriusXM. Memes and gifs posted around the clock on social media showing ugly holiday/menorah sweaters and telling us about the miracle of our cell phone battery on 10% lasting for a week. Actually, if there’s one bright spot, it seems like Adam Sandler and a certain song might have mercifully faded into history.
Nah, I have no beef with Chanukah–as long as I’m able to remember what this strange and utterly misunderstood festival is really all about–and thanks to certain current events, the theme of Chanukah has never been more topical and relevant. Beyond the questionable story about some magical oil that lasted beyond its expiration date, Chanukah is a story about the few prevailing over the many–about freedom to worship and resisting the complete abandonment of one’s identity. And it makes us consider defining the Jewish people as a nationality in addition to a religious group–at least a couple thousand years ago.
I imagine that many of us pay a visit to our financial planners on some kind of regular basis for a little checkup. After evaluating factors like performance, risk, our age, and time to retirement, the planner might suggest a little rebalancing. Nothing major–but just taking what we have and making some minor adjustments to make things work better and more sensibly.
Forget about the oil, dreidel, and bad holiday music. This is the true message of Chanukah: It’s our annual religious evaluation meeting. We intuitively understand that Chanukah teaches us–like our Maccabee ancestors–to resist assimilation and retain our identity. But it gives us precious little instruction on how to do that.
Is all assimilation bad? Should we completely set ourselves apart from the world around us, like certain Jewish sects? On the other hand, should we fully embrace all aspects of society as free and equal members–but in the process abandon Jewish rituals which make us distinct?
Is there a Goldilocks level of assimilation–something that feels Just Right?
Of course, there’s no one answer which will satisfy everyone. Just as in financial planning, every decision we make involves an opportunity cost. Opting for private day school education might strengthen all aspects of Jewish knowledge and identity, but decreases a Jewish presence in the public schools. The strict observance of Shabbat may increase one’s connection to the beauty and tranquility of that day, but may preclude working in certain fields or advancing a career. That which bolsters our spiritual or religious connection to each other runs the risk of setting us further apart from our neighbors.
Chanukah is the time when we take a look at our religious portfolio and decide what’s working and what needs rebalancing. Unlike the traditional and rather simplistic metaphor of the ladder–whereby we can only go up or down in holiness (and you’d better be going up, or else)–we can move up, down, sideways, diagonally, or in any direction we need at a specific time.
The heroes of the Chanukah story were just figuring it out like the rest of us, deciding how to fight assimilation and retain their Jewish identity in a way that made sense for them. A lesser-known fact: they ultimately failed. After only a few generations, the Hasmonean dynasty lost their distinct identity, assimilated into the world around them, and eventually died off. What worked for one generation could not be sustained. They squandered their religious investment because they failed to adapt to new conditions.
The best lesson of Chanukah is to learn from their mistakes and continually seek the proper balance. And then to repeat that process often.
Let’s find the best and most appropriate way to make our Chanukah gelt really work for us.