Watch But Don’t Look

Morah Yehudis Fishman

‘Don’t let the lights….see your wallet.’

There is a curious caveat regarding the Hanukah lights. In the prayer recited after lighting, there is a phrase: ‘these candles are holy and we have no permission to use them.’ Much rabbinic ink has been spilt elaborating on this idea. One specific example of this prohibition cited by the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat, which is one of the few Talmudic references to Hanukah: ‘It is forbidden to count money by the light of the candles.’ Why is this example singled out?

I would like to relate this stipulation to a recent, quirky set of episodes about the ‘wild west’ in a Netflix film from the Coen brothers, called the Ballad of Buster Scruggs.  In one particular incident, a hobo carries around a brilliant man who can recite poetry and inspirational writings. The hobo collects money from the onlookers after the performance. The challenge is, his protégé has no hands or legs. As fewer and fewer people line up to listen to the literate recitals, the hobo becomes discouraged. Then in their meanderings, the two come across another street act, of a chicken who seems to be a math whiz. More and more people flock around this new phenomenon. The hobo with the crippled genius buys the chicken. Then when the hobo begins to think that the young man is becoming a useless burden, when they come to the edge of a deep river, the hobo chucks the genius in the river! Super dark, we can all agree.

What is the Hanukah link? We are all drawn to light in its various containers. The human analogy could be people in our lives who have special talents or accomplishments. How do we, the observers, look upon these people? As models to admire and appreciate, or are we jealous or even ‘plotting’ how, like the hobo, we can personally benefit from them. Even when we seem to be assisting them, is the outcome altruistic or even merely one of mutual benefit? Or are we thinking about them consciously or unconsciously, as tools for our own betterment? People are people. Most of us are naturally pulled by self-centered urges, some really dark, though most of us, thank G-d, not as dark as those in the film. We should not be in denial about our human proclivities but we are on this earth to recognize, restrain, and even retrain these passions to channel them into positive directions.

Martin Buber famously ‘coined’ human relationships as defined by either I-It, interactions, or I-Thou.  In other words, do we use other people’s light and prowess to ‘count our money’, i.e. our personal profit, or do we respect their uniqueness and achievements as a result of both their efforts and G-d given abilities? Do we have enough faith in G-d and in ourselves to realize that we are not diminished or pushed into the shadow by the spotlight shining on others?

There is a custom for parents and/or teachers to give out ‘Hanukah gelt’ during these eight days. Based on the above topic, you might think of that practice as anathema to the message of the Hanukah lights. Don’t we read in the Hanukah prayer- ‘You have given over the mighty in the hands of the weak, the many in the hands of the few, etc.’ where quality is valued over quantity? However, the sages point out that we must evaluate the contexts. If our light, our spirit, becomes a means of obtaining material goods, that’s not so good. On the other hand, if we use our material goods to enhance the light, that is a different story.

Perhaps this was the battle between the Maccabees and the Hellenists. As some rabbis phrased it, the Hellenists believed in the ‘Holiness of Beauty,’ the deification of physical, sensory perfection. In contrast, the Jewish emphasis is, ‘the Beauty of Holiness’, the sanctity of using the material world for a higher purpose. Moreover, rather than just avoid the physical world with all its glitter and sizzle, the Torah’s mandate is to take that money and use it for sacred causes, to be able, as stated in Ethics of the Fathers, to sustain and enhance the pillars upon which the world rests- Study of Torah, Divine Service, and Acts of Lovingkindness.

The Hassidic master, Reb Michel of Zlotchov, was known to have said, ‘If you squeeze out Jewish prayers, you get money, but if you squeeze out Jewish money, you get mitzvoth!’ So yes there is a custom to hand out ‘Hanukah Gelt’ but it should not be viewed as an end in itself. We should teach children- and Hanukah is also related to the word, Chinuch, meaning education- and ourselves not to sell our souls and those of others, for a few measly earthly possessions. Sadly the secular world seems more and more to exchange lasting values for more ephemeral ones: Black Friday, Cyber Monday…Bloody Tuesday? The spaces between some holidays are filled with constant advertisements for more and more consumer bargains and sales

Even in the Jewish world, for example, buying a mezuzah may be more about buying a fancy case, than the sacred parchment within. This is a case of the Hellenist infiltration into Jewish life. More subtle, but also insidious, are those who will denigrate someone for some lack of minor ritual observance, and in the process, hurt the feelings of the other so badly as to transgress a fundamental Torah principle, of ‘Love your fellow as yourself.’

Again, the solution is not to forfeit material goods and acquisitions, but to constantly ask oneself, ‘What and whom am I doing this for?’ Let the ever increasing light of holiness be your ‘north star.’ As I taught this week at the UU church, even though we are moving further and further away from the light of Sinai, we are also moving closer and closer to the end of history’s tunnel, toward the light of Mashiach.

If you want to learn more about Hanukah before the holiest final night, please consider coming to a class I’m teaching at Bonai Shalom on Sunday, December 9th, at 4:00 pm.

About Morah Yehudis Fishman

I have been teaching Torah and Chassidic writings for over forty years to students of all ages and backgrounds, both on the East Coast and the Midwest. I have been a director of several Jewish organizations in Santa Fe and Colorado. My articles and poetry on a wide variety of Jewish topics have been printed in many publications, and also are available online.

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