Chanukah: Not Just A Children’s Holiday

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It never used to bother me; that is, until recently.

Somehow, over the years, Chanukah has come to be celebrated as a children’s holiday. Even in Jewish folklore, children’s games have traditionally been an important part of the Chanukah experience. Chanukah without a dreidel game is perfectly acceptable halachically, but it would feel incomplete emotionally.

The ethnic foods of Chanukah, both Ashkenazic latkes and Israeli sufganiyot, appeal to children. Adults, particularly those of us who are on diets, find them far less appetizing.

The songs of Chanukah, even the old Yiddish ones that date back generations, were clearly composed for the enjoyment of youngsters, and the audience for the more contemporary Chanukah music of groups such as the Maccabeats is definitely the younger generation.

Chanukah gelt is another aspect of the holiday clearly directed at kids, though grownups might put the gelt to better use. The contemporary American custom, which I am afraid is heavily influenced by the culture of the country in which we live, makes the holiday even more child-centered by distributing an additional gift each night to the young ones in the family.

No doubt about it. Chanukah has become a children’s holiday. But why has that begun to bother me?

It hasn’t taken much introspection on my part to realize that it has only begun to bother me in recent years, as I have become more and more conscious of my own aging.

Don’t get me wrong. First of all, I am not that old. I love watching the faces of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren as they light up, brighter than the lights of the menorah, with fun and games and gifts of the eight days of Chanukah. But there is a part of me that is envious, that wishes to reclaim Chanukah for myself and for my generation.

After all, there is nothing in the Talmud, or in the halachic tradition in general, to suggest the holiday is to be celebrated any less by us grandparents than by our grandchildren. The central hero of the Chanukah story, and the only one mentioned by name in the Al HaNissim prayer, was Matisyahu the high priest, and he was certainly no youngster when he led his valiant sons into battle. Indeed, in most of the drawings I have seen, the artist envisions Matisyahu as having a longer and whiter beard than I do.

I would like to make a case, therefore, that Chanukah is at least as much a holiday for us older folks as it is for children. Further, I want to argue that a central teaching of Chanukah is one that contains a special lesson for those who are coping with the challenges of advancing years.

Studies of the general society indicate that an increasingly larger percentage of the population is sixty and above. This is true of our Jewish society as well. More attention needs to be given to this growing segment of our community and to what it means to be getting older.

Specifically, people who are growing old need to learn not only how to age gracefully, but how to age well. What are the secrets of those older people who seem to thrive – if not always physically, then certainly mentally and emotionally and spiritually? And how can other individuals who are getting old learn those secrets?

I have long reflected on these questions as I observed the great sages of my generation and how they seemed to become even greater as they aged. I speak specifically of Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky and Rav Moshe Feinstein, both of whom I was privileged to observe closely when they were well past ninety. Who among us was not impressed and inspired by Rav Yitzchok Koppelman, the revered dean of the yeshiva in Lucerne, Switzerland, whose active life came to a close within the past year?

Do not all of us in the Torah-observant camp stand in awe of the youthful vigor and ongoing creative accomplishments of the various great sages in Israel today, very many of them in their 80’s and 90’s and some even above 100, who continue to teach and preach and write and lead with undiminished vitality? What is their secret?

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Lest we think successful aging is limited to great holy men who may very well have been granted a divine blessing that enables them thus to flourish, let me share with you some of my experiences during my recent stay in Israel.

My wife and I have a small apartment in a neighborhood in Jerusalem where many retired Americans have settled. When there, I have had occasion to observe men and women 20 years or more my senior who live active and productive lives.

One such occasion occurred over a Shabbat I spent as a scholar in residence at Beit Tovei Ha’Ir, a retirement community in the heart of Jerusalem. I must say that though I was invited to this wonderful community to teach, I learned much more than I taught, as is often the case.

I spent the entire weekend in the company of men and women who live in a retirement community but who have never really retired. They may no longer be in the work force, but in his or her own way, given the limitations that invariably accompany age, each continues to be active. More importantly, they continue to grow.

Some do it through Torah study, attending one or more of a dazzling array of shiurim at all levels and in several languages, though many of them have little or no formal Torah education. Some do it through physical exercise programs. Some do it through learning new artistic or musical skills, painting and drawing and learning to play musical instruments.

What does all this have to do with Chanukah?

There is no better metaphor for the secret skill of aging well than the central visual symbol of Chanukah. We are familiar with the age-old dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. The former would have had us light eight candles on the first night, and then decrease the number of candles to seven, to six, and eventually to just one. Pochais v’holech – diminishing light, waning life.

We follow a different model: mosif v’holech. This is the approach of Beit Hillel, lighting an additional candle each day, beginning with one and increasing step by step to eight. Expanding light, growing horizons. This is the secret of aging well, which is so exquisitely exemplified by the imagery of the Chanukah menorah.

If the secret to aging well consists of learning new things and being involved in new activities, why then do so many of the elderly not take advantage of this knowledge? Why is it that when one visits some other retirement communities, one finds residents who not only are not growing, but who are deteriorating?

I was asked to deliver a lecture at Beit Tovei Ha’Ir that would answer precisely these questions. I found myself using as a text for the lecture a passage in Maseches Berachos which teaches us about certain hindrances to proper prayer.

“One should not begin to pray in an attitude of sadness, nor in an attitude of laziness, nor in the midst of laughter or idle conversation, nor in the midst of levity or trivial discussions, but rather in a spirit of simcha shel mitzvah, of joy for a mitzvah well-performed” (Berachos 31a).

I argued that these negative conditions are precisely the obstacles to successful aging. If an older person begins to get bogged down in self-pity and despair, succumbs to idleness and laziness rather than engage in healthy activity, or entertains himself mindlessly, he or she is apt to become bored and will soon be overwhelmed with feelings of uselessness and lack of purpose.

It is often said that old people no longer have a yetzer hara, an evil inclination. The Satan they knew earlier in life has left them. The passions that lead youth astray begin to lose their grip upon us as we age. I have found that Satan has not abandoned the elderly; he merely substitutes new temptations for the old familiar ones. A new yetzer hara comes on the scene for the elderly, and takes the form of yielding to sadness, laziness, and idle pastimes that do not stimulate the intellect or challenge the mind.

The ideal mindset for prayer, according to the Talmud, is “simcha shel mitzvah.” This is defined by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch as the experience one has when one has set an objective to perform some good deed, and then achieves that objective. At that point a joyous sense of accomplishment is experienced. That, argues Rav Hirsch, is the proper mood from which to pray.

I would argue that this is precisely the mood that pervades the psyche of those who age well. They set new objectives, work hard to achieve them, learn new skills in the process, and ultimately experience the joyous feelings that accompany a job well done.

This too is one of the lessons of the story of Chanukah. The Maccabees had a set of objectives, partly military, but mostly spiritual. They wished to combat the tendencies among their Jewish fellows to adopt the culture of Hellenism. They wished to overthrow the cruel yoke of alien rulers. They were clear about what they wanted to accomplish.

They set about achieving these objectives by adhering to Torah and mitzvot with great self-sacrifice. They resorted to military means to rebel against the tyrants who oppressed them, though the oppressor was mightier and more numerous than they.

With the help of the Almighty, they prevailed and achieved all their objectives. Then they experienced the “simcha shel mitzvah” that is a special reward of those who set high goals and persist until they achieve them. This is the significance of Chanukah. This is why this particular holiday is such an appropriate set of symbols for the admittedly difficult process of aging well.

In the research I did as I prepared for the talk to that retirement community I discovered a fascinating and insightful passage in the writings of the Maharal of Prague. In his commentary Gur Aryeh on Bereishis 8:21 he analyzes the nature of the evil inclination. I paraphrase his analysis:

The yetzer hara operates best when a person is convinced that his job is over and done, and that no further growth can be achieved. That is when a person is vulnerable to the Satan of self-satisfaction and complacency. But when a person is in motion toward a goal, he looks neither to the left nor to the right. He’s not susceptible to the distractions of the yetzer hara. It is only after one reaches some plateau in life that he succumbs to temptation. When one is busy striving, when one is yet incomplete and undeveloped, there is no evil inclination.

In this particular passage, the Maharal focuses on a very early stage of life. But I find his observations particularly relevant for the later stages of life as well. If an aging individual feels his life’s work is done and he has no further mission in this world, he is very likely to yield to the yetzer hara of boredom, despair, self-neglect and sloth.

But if he sees himself as launching a journey, as initiating a dynamic new process of learning and achievement, he is in motion. Moving targets, as it were, are immune to the darts of Satan. At any stage of life Satan is but a pseudonym for surrender to an empty life.

There are so many other lessons in this beautiful holiday. Lessons for those of us who are not getting old, but – as I learned to say from one of the residents in that wonderful retirement community, Rabbi Dr. Simon Eckstein – are getting older, who are not burdened by years, but blessed by them.

Besides the candles of Chanukah, there are the mitzvot of hallel v’hodaah, singing praise and thanksgiving. For among the secrets of aging well is expressing gratitude to the Almighty for the blessings of additional years. Giving voice to this gratitude through song, through hallel, is an especially beneficial way to enhance those blessings even further.

My new acquaintance Rabbi Eckstein, who though a great-grandparent feels to me like a young friend, quotes his distinguished friend, Rabbi Berel Wein: “One of the blessings of our generation is the unique role of grandparents and great-grandparents in providing a bridge as well as a perspective: a bridge to the past and a perspective on life for the present and future.”

I would add that families need to appreciate the resources available to them in those members of their own families who can serve as such bridges and offer such perspectives. I would further add that even in families where older folks are not available, those bridges and perspectives can be found among the older people of other families, who would be willing, nay eager, to play the role of surrogate grandparents. Chanukah is a perfect time to invite such individuals into your own homes and families.

Older people are not, as the phrase from the “Maoz Tzur” song has it, the nosar kankanim, the dregs that remain at the bottom of the containers of oil. From those “dregs” a great miracle occurred to the shoshanim, to the budding flowers.

“Growth through new experiences.” That is the symbol of Chanukah. That is the secret of aging well.

I found these words of a wise mentor of mine in an old notebook from my psychology graduate school days:

“To know how to grow old is the masterwork of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living.”

And in the words of none other than wise old Socrates:

“I enjoy talking with very old people. They have gone before us on a road by which we, too, may have to travel. I think we’d do well to learn from them what it is like.”

I close in the hope that this Chanukah, you younger folks, whom we older folks are blessed to call our grandchildren, make some room at your dreidel game for Zaidie and Bubbie. Chanukah is their holiday, too.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president, emeritus of the Orthodox Union. This article originally appeared in The Jewish Press.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.