There's more to Chanukah than spinning tops and eating potato pancakes. The first Chanukah millennia ago – and Chanukah today – represents a great struggle between two very different ways to look at life. The Jewish outlook has always been that the physical world with all its beauty and power is fine, but only if it is used as a way to express higher ethical values. Back then a culture sprung up against us and tried to say "Beauty and power are primary. Let's keep values out of the picture.” When we celebrate Chanukah even today, we affirm our belief that the most important part of life is not being strong or beautiful – but being moral and good.
In our story a couple of kids find themselves living out the Chanukah story first hand.
Beads of sweat rolled off of Gary's face as he strained his body to the max. “Okay, push it, push it, Gary. Yeah, you did it, man! You pressed a hundred pounds!”
He and his buddy, Rob, had been trying to make the best use of their winter break by working out every day in the local gym. The long, cold winter usually meant a lot of time indoors and it was hard to exercise. So when the gym in town advertised a special two-week winter break package deal, the guys jumped at the chance to pump some iron.
Gary was good and hungry after the early morning workout, and didn't know what was taking Rob so long to get changed and head back to his place for breakfast. Finally Gary's patience ran out. He went back into the locker room and got his answer. Rob was standing in front of the mirror flexing his muscles.
“Hey, let's get going, Rob! If you spend any more time in front of that mirror, it's going to crack,” he laughed.
Rob blushed for a second and then said, “What's the problem? Don't you want to see how big your muscles look too? After all, isn't this the whole point of doing that record-breaking bench-press of yours?"
“That's not what I do it for,” Gary replied shaking his head. “I didn't spend the last 45 minutes sweating bullets just to be able to stand in front of a mirror and admire myself.”
Rob clicked his tongue as he flexed his bicep. “Of course it's not for only us," Rob explained. "All the kids back at school are going to be really impressed too when they see how great we look, and…”
“That's not what I meant. Didn't you pay attention to the Chanukah story we learned about on the last day of school? How the Jewish way is to use our physical strength and good looks for something worthwhile?”
“And what could be more worthwhile than looking good?” quipped Rob. “Anyway, don't be a hypocrite. You work out as much as I do, and if anything your biceps are much bigger than mine.”
“That's just the point. It's fine to get physical – but for a purpose. Chanukah teaches us that everything physical, everything we have – including our bodies – are all just packages for our souls. They're tools God gave us to use properly for something really worthwhile, not just to admire.”
Rob, who had by now put his arms down and turned from the mirror, looked confused.
Gary went on. “For instance, do you know why I work out? I do it to keep healthy and have more energy to concentrate in school. And I also do it so I can really be some help around the house, like by shoveling out our driveway instead of my dad who had an operation a couple of months ago. The big muscles are just 'the package' that let me do that.”
Rob wasn't convinced. “That's all great, but I still say when it comes to looking good, it's 'the outside package' that counts.”
The guys packed up their stuff and headed back to Gary's place where his mom had set out some bowls of milk and several boxes of cereal for the hungry athletes. Gary picked up a bright, colorful box and began to pour it into Rob's bowl.
“Whoa, I'll take some of that other stuff if you don't mind, it tastes much better.”
But to Rob's surprise, Gary hid the second box behind his back and wouldn't pass it to him.
“Hey, c'mon man! Let me have that other cereal.”
“What do you want that for?" Gary said with a smile. "It's in such a plain box. This cereal here is in a much nicer looking package, and that's 'what counts,' remember?”
Despite himself, Rob couldn't help laughing – or getting the point either. After breakfast Rob decided to stick around to help Gary shovel out his driveway, and celebrate Chanukah and what it stood for by not just admiring his muscles, but putting them to good use for a worthwhile cause as well.
Q. How did Rob feel about working out at the gym at first?
A. He felt that it was enough to do it just to look good.
Q. How did he feel in the end?
A. That it's important not to just look good, but be good and use what we have to help others.
Q. What was Gary trying to tell his friend was the message of Chanukah?
A. That everything physical, like good looks, athletic talent, and wealth, are only positive things if we use them for good, worthwhile purposes. For example, the muscles he had built by working out weren't for admiring or impressing others, but for using them in a way that would help people and make the world a better place.
Q. Who's more beautiful: someone with a gorgeous face who acts unkindly, or one with not very nice facial features but who acts kindly? Why?
A. Real beauty isn't about the color of a person's eyes or the shape of his nose. Someone can have the most gorgeous face in the world and be hideously ugly if he acts cruelly to others. On the other hand, someone who tries to do what's good and right and cares about others is beautiful no matter what his face looks like. Once we learn how to see with our hearts and not with our eyes, we will understand.
Q. Must something have a higher ethical purpose to be beautiful or of value?
A. At first glance it might seem as if something's physical appearance and whether or not it is connected to a higher purpose are unrelated. But the Jewish approach is more holistic and sees something's outer physical properties and its inner spiritual properties as parts of a greater whole, and therefore unless something is spiritually beautiful, which means it is reaching toward its higher purpose, its looks are of little consequence.
Q. Does being spiritual mean pulling away from anything physical or superficial, like trying to look good?
A. Not at all. True spirituality is not about 'escaping' from the physical – nor indulging in it for its own sake, but rather raising the physical up, by using it – but always with an eye on how to connect it to something higher. For instance, when eating a good meal, we should sincerely have in mind to use the energy the food gives us to do good deeds, or in the case of looking good, we should view it as an aspect of staying healthy, or as a way to make a positive impression on those we would like to inspire to improve their lives.