Measuring our fortune and Chanukah’s lesson of appreciating our very own miracles
By: Rabbi Dovid Samuels
The symbol of the Menorah – or the Chanukiah – has become synonymous, not only with the festival of Chanukah, but Judaism in general. Not believing in coincidence, this festival must therefore have some fundamental connection with our religion, and us as Jews. So, if we ask what the main aspect of Chanukah is, surely we would say the lighting of the Ner Chanukah. After all, it is referred to by some as the Festival of Lights. But if we look at our prayers on Chanukah, we find something strange: in the Al HaNissim addition, we acknowledge the miracles that Hashem did for the Jewish people at that time in history, and we speak at length how He provided us with a miraculous victory over the powerful and imposing Greek army. Almost as an after-thought, we then mention how the Jews purified the Beis Hamikdash and rekindled the Menorah. But absolutely no mention is made of the eight-day miracle of the lights staying lit! To top it off, we finish off the paragraph stating that the whole reason why we celebrate these eight days of Chanukah is simply to express thanks and praise to Hashem.
So, if our appreciation of Chanukah is simply lighting a few candles, we’ve apparently missed the whole point of the festival. The point is to give thanks to Hashem. But, what exactly are we thankful for? One could suggest that we are thanking Hashem for enabling us to survive that great spiritual threat of Greece, and consequently allowing us to observe Hashem’s mitzvos to this day. That alone is cause for infinite praise and thanks…but is there something else?
Let’s go back and learn from the masters what it means to give thanks to Hashem. In the famous encounter between Yaakov Avinu and the angel of Eisav, the Torah relates, “And the sun shone for him (Yaakov) when he passed Penu’el, and he had a dislocated hip.” The sefer Be’er Mayim Chaim asks why we need to know that the sun shone for Yaakov Avinu, and specifically at a place called Penu’el. Surely it would suffice just to know that Yaakov was injured from the encounter. If we scratch the surface, we will learn a critical lesson about our whole outlook on life. There are two types of people who are thankful for what they have. There is the lofty level of acknowledging that Hashem provides us with everything we have, despite being totally undeserving of anything from Him; absolute kindness, for free. For this, these righteous people praise and thank Hashem endlessly, increasing with every extra kindness shown to them from Above.
In contrast, there are those of us who recognise that everything we have comes from Hashem, and we are thankful for that, but as soon as we see someone else with something extra (or what appears to be extra), we feel neglected, and that feeling over-rides the feeling of thanks and gratitude, replacing feelings of appreciation with feelings of dissatisfaction. The first group knows that they don’t deserve anything, so they will never become anguished by the apparent disparity between what they have and what someone else has.
Yaakov Avinu experienced an amazing miracle in his exhausting battle with the angel of Eisav. He was given superhuman strength and stamina to stay fighting all night. Hashem showed him a great kindness by letting him survive this torturous ordeal. But, he wasn’t completely unscathed. He left the battleground limping, with a severe leg injury. At this moment, it would have been understandable for Yaakov to have looked back at his grandfather’s life and made the following complaint: “My grandfather, Avraham, was saved miraculously by Hashem when he was thrown into the furnace at Ur Kasdim and when he fought against the four kings, just like I was saved now. So, how come he survived unscathed, yet I am suffering from a dislocated hip?” From our point of view, it might seem unfair, but such a thought never even entered the holy mind of our forefather, Yaakov. Instead, Yaakov thanked and praised Hashem for his miraculous survival, as we are told: “And Yaakov called the name of the place Pni’el, because: I saw G-d face-to-face and my life was saved.”
As a reward for this sincere appreciation, Hashem caused the sun to shine for Yaakov, and the rays of the sun healed his wounded hip. This further kindness was a ‘measure-for-measure’ response to Yaakov’s pure gratitude, for the sun has two properties: one is that it lights up the day, and the second is as a healing force. Most people will only experience the sun as a light in the sky, but Yaakov Avinu merited to experience the second property of the sun as well, and he was healed by its rays, because just as he was appreciative for what he had received, despite getting “less” than what his grandfather Avraham had received, he was given a gift from Hashem that other people don’t merit to receive: the sun’s miraculous and therapeutic power. With this, the Be’er Mayim Chaim explains the verse: “And the sun shone for him” – for Yaakov Avinu specifically, awarding him a gift that others do not merit, “when he passed Penu’el” – and gave praise and thanks to Hashem for saving him in the battle, even though “he had a dislocated hip” – and despite his injury, which his grandfather never suffered, it didn’t detract from his heartfelt gratitude to Hashem.
It is an obligation for everything in creation to sing praises and thanks to Hashem, but the yetzer hara (evil inclination) exerts massive efforts to prevent us from achieving this expectation. How? By blinding our eyes to this lesson from Yaakov Avinu. He makes us look left and right at what everyone else has, and only then we look at ourselves, all too often feeling overlooked and hard-done-by. For example, if a person wants to evaluate how he is doing financially, he will look at his friends of similar age and background and see if he is earning less or more than them. A person, from our perspective, could be in a very comfortable financial situation, but when you ask him how he’s doing he will compare himself to more ‘successful’ peers and be dissatisfied with what he has. “My brother is earning twice as much as me!” Is our house big enough? Well, let’s just walk down the street, and if our neighbours’ houses are smaller than ours, then yes. But if the other houses in the street are bigger, then our house feels too small to even sneeze in! Are we measuring things correctly? Are we measuring like our forefather Yaakov taught us to?
So why are we so prone to making such mistakes? The answer is that when somebody asks for a “small” favour, we have to ask them what they consider small. A “small” loan could be R500, or it could be R5 000. It all depends on what other people consider small. So we are trained to define something as “big” or “small” based on other people’s perceptions. Logically, then, when we receive a gift from Hashem, we also like to define it as either “big” or “small” based on other people’s definitions. So we are given a place to live by our Father in Heaven, but we immediately define it as a “small” house. Why? Because compared to everyone else’s, it’s pretty small! And, if it’s labelled a small house, are we likely to be filled with feelings of gratitude, or feelings of dissatisfaction? The answer is all too clear. And sometimes the remedy we employ is not too great either: “Well, at least my small house is better than not having any house at all. I guess things aren’t that bad after all.” A potential for an outpouring of gratitude has been replaced with, at best, “things could be worse”. This is a tragedy.
What Yaakov Avinu is teaching us is that our relationship with Hashem should not be based on His apparent relationship with other people. The Seforno teaches us that just as the mere thought of marrying the princess doesn’t even enter the peasant’s mind because she is totally out of his league, so too should we look at anything and everything that our peers have with the same mind-set: what they own has nothing to do with what I have. Everyone receives what he needs; nothing more, nothing less. Even a twin brother, in the same job as you, working the same hours; his success is based on a completely different calculation to yours. He gets what he needs for his role in Hashem’s plan, and we get what we need for our role in Hashem’s plan. The shining of the sun for Yaakov is symbolic of us seeing the light and realising that what we receive from Hashem is perfect for us, and already far more than we deserve.
When we stop looking at what our neighbours have, we will suddenly be exposed to the great gifts, even miracles, we experience on a minute-to-minute basis, and, if we express our thanks to Hashem just as Yaakov did, we will not only be fulfilling our basic obligation in this world, but we will, in turn, receive unique presents from Hashem which are not even shared by our neighbours.
This exercise of gratitude and appreciation is all the more applicable at this time of year, as we give thanks for Hashem’s miracles for the survival of the Jewish people. The Ramban, however, puts these miracles into perspective. He teaches us that our requirement to praise Hashem for His miracles, like taking us out of Egypt, is a means for us to start noticing the “small” hidden miracles that Hashem does for us, individually, on a constant basis. The “big” miracles are like workshops, to train our eyes and our mouths in noticing and expressing our gratitude. What follows is the ability to see and thank Hashem for everything in our lives.
It’s no wonder, then, that this holiday is so symbolic of the Jewish faith. As the Prophet Isaiah teaches: “This nation, I created for Myself, for them to relate My praise.” What makes us stand out as a nation of G-d is our ability to learn from the great miracles of our past and continue to praise Hashem for all of the wonders of our present. The sefer Shnei Luchos HaBris teaches us that a person is obligated to be thankful even for every sneeze. In the early years of mankind, a person would die upon sneezing when his time was up. It was only thanks to Yaakov’s prayers that this stopped, and people started to age visibly to signal their nearing the end of their lives. Every sneeze reminds us of our mortality and the great gift of life.
Chanukah is the festival whereby we light up the darkness in the world around us. We were given this unique chag at a time just before the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, as we were being sent into exile, into deep darkness. Lighting our Chanukah candles is a sign of our thanks to Hashem. We publicise the miracle, we perform the mitzvah in a beautiful way. But the intention is to feel true appreciation for not only the “big” miracles, but, more importantly, for all of the “small” ones too. We let the light from our own lives shine outwards; we all have something worth publicising. Chanukah, and the message it teaches, is our tool for survival in the long, dark exile. So Chazal instituted eight days of praise and thanks to Hashem. This is our survival; this is true happiness, and this is what separates us from everyone else.