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The Candles and the Tree

The Candles and the Tree

A child who sees no difference between the flames of the menorah and the twinkling lights of the tree.


It was the December after my ninth birthday. A menorah rested on the bookshelf over the television console. Across the room, beside the fireplace, the lights of a tree twinkled red and green and blue. I was standing next to my mother as she held a candle in her hand. My father wasn't there. He wasn't into these things.

My mother lit the lone candle, ushering in the first night of Chanukah. She didn't recite the blessing. She didn't know it. I remember watching the wick catch, watching the flame grow bright, and asking myself, "Now what happens?"

"We light the candles for eight nights because the oil burned for eight days," my mother had told me. What oil? I wondered. But something about her brief explanation convinced me not to ask. Maybe she didn't know, either.

At my suggestion, the menorah had disappeared and only the tree remained.

A year or two later, at my suggestion, the menorah had disappeared and only the tree remained. Waiting for the morning of December 25th when all the presents could be opened at once seemed far more dramatic than diluting the experience over a week, especially when those wrapped boxes mysteriously appeared under the tree day after day over the course of almost a whole month. Chanukah just couldn't compete.

Only two decades later did I come to appreciate how much my own experience had truly been a Chanukah story.


When I left home for college I left behind the tree with the menorah. December 25th had become as irrelevant as Santa Claus, and I preferred an envelope with a check to wrapped presents that would most likely be returned for credit. I eagerly adopted the ambivalent agnosticism of so many of my peers, celebrating dormitory weekends by emptying six-packs rather than observing commercialized annual holidays with empty rituals.

Sometime toward the end of my university career I found myself attracted to Zen. Not in the traditional style, with its practices of discipline and self-mastery, but the pop-spiritual variety learned from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and similar modern scriptures.

Aligning myself with the spiritual energy of the universe became my goal. I wanted to choose good over evil because ultimately that brought good karma and spiritual contentment. Surely, this was the road to Truth.

But we all know which road is paved with good intentions. As sincere as I may have been in my aspiration to travel the road to truth, I found with annoying frequency that when my desire to do good clashed with my desire to indulge evil, good threw in the towel at least two times out of three. Forced to take stock of myself, I had to concede that, for all its high-sounding ideals, a spiritual discipline that produced no moral discipline wasn't worth its mantras.


I hadn't developed much discipline in my academic life, either. Oh, my grades were good enough, but four years studying English literature and writing had left me with neither gainful employment nor vocational direction. It was 1983, a decade late to join the hippies or beatniks, but that didn't stop me from swinging a backpack over my shoulders and hitchhiking across the country. If I hadn't found Truth in the ivory tower, perhaps I might find it in the heart of America.

Sixth months crisscrossing the country brought me no closer to Truth, but it did whet my wanderlust, and I soon boarded a flight across the Atlantic to continue my journey through Europe, after which Africa, Asia, and Australia lay upon my horizon.

The kibbutz placement office was blocked by a line of 20-somethings camped out like they were waiting for Rolling Stones tickets.

Half a year in Europe ended with a short hop across the Mediterranean to Israel, where I sought the classical Jewish experience of volunteering to pick oranges on a kibbutz. But it was December, with little agricultural work to be done; moreover, the dollar was strong, resulting in some 9 million American tourists in Europe, many of them draining south into Israel as winter weather set in. I found the kibbutz placement office blocked by a line of 20-somethings camped out like they were waiting for Rolling Stones tickets, oblivious to signs screaming, NO PLACEMENTS BEFORE JANUARY.

Desperate for a break from the stresses of travel on a shoestring, I cast about for some way of imposing routine upon my life before departing for Africa and, somehow, found myself invited to attend yeshiva.

Yeshiva? The word was unfamiliar, but the offer of a bed, hot meals, and a daily schedule of classes proved irresistible. It was two weeks before Chanukah, and I would finally learn about the secrets of the menorah and the miracle of the oil.


Although a period of peaceful coexistence followed Alexander the Great's occupation of the Land of Israel, it didn't take long after Alexander's death before the Greeks began to feel first discomfited and later threatened by their Jewish subjects and the Judaism they practiced. Greek philosophy recognized man as the pinnacle of creation, perfect in his accomplishments, answerable to no one but himself. Greek mythology embraced a pantheon of gods characterized by caprice and selfishness, by lust and vengeance, thereby sanctioning similar behavior among men. How offended must the Greeks have been by a Jewish society devoted to self-perfection through submission to a divine code of moral conduct.

When they could no longer tolerate the Jewish threat to their ideals, the Greeks contrived to destroy Jewish ideology. Whereas their predecessors, Babylon and Persia, had employed violent oppression, the Greeks plotted with far greater subtlety: in place of physical violence or outright prohibition of Torah observance, they banned only three practices: the Sabbath, brit milah (circumcision), and Rosh Chodesh, the sanctification of the new month.

The Sabbath testifies to the divine nature of the universe; without this weekly reminder, we easily loose touch with and ultimately forget our relationship with our Creator. Brit milah is the sign of our higher calling, reminding us that we can control our physical impulses rather than allowing them to control us, that each of us is a work-in-progress striving toward self-completion and self-perfection. Rosh Chodesh is the ceremony that fixes the calendar and imbues the Jewish holidays with an intrinsic holiness. Without Rosh Chodesh, placement of the holidays would become arbitrary, leeching all meaning from them the way American Federal holidays have lost all substance in the eyes of most Americans.

The Jews refused to submit, and in the end the Greeks resorted to violence. But their plan had been sound: had they succeeded in stopping our adherence to these three precepts, they would have succeeded also in reducing Torah observance to an empty ritual, one that might have continued on for generations, but would have quickly become bereft of all meaning and spiritual significance. For this reason, the observance of Chanukah always includes one Sabbath, always passes through Rosh Chodesh, and is eight days long as a remembrance of the brit, the covenant between the Jew and his Creator.

The Maccabees recognized the incompatibility between Greek ideology and Jewish philosophy, and that ultimately one would have to prevail over the other.

Chanukah celebrates victory not only over our Greek oppressors, but also over the Hellenists, those Jews who promoted a new synchronism of Judaism, wherein they hoped to intermingle Jewish practice with that which they found most attractive in Greek culture. The Maccabees recognized the total incompatibility between Greek ideology and Jewish philosophy, and that ultimately one would have to prevail over the other. Without staunch defenders fighting for Jewish identity, the candles of Judaism would inevitably be extinguished and only the tree of foreign culture would remain.


Despite the victory of the Maccabees, the Greeks did not disappear. To this day they persist in their cultural assault against the values of Jewish tradition. The nine year old boy in America, or Britain, or even in Israel, who looks at the Chanukah candles and wonders what they mean, who sees no difference between the flames of the menorah and the twinkling lights of the tree, testifies to the victory of the Greeks.

But not every child has forgotten the lights. The rekindling of the menorah each year reminds us that the torch of Jewish tradition continues to illuminate generation after generation and dispel the darkness of apathy and assimilation. However much the ideological descendants of the Greeks strive to extinguish the lights, the eternal flame that burns within the soul of the Jewish people still shines on and on.

In my own observance of Chanukah, I rejoice that my own nine-year-old and her siblings are growing up not only with the lights of the menorah, but with a growing understanding of what they mean. I'm grateful that I can give them what my parents were unable to give me: self-knowledge, the greatest weapon against cultural extinction. They know already that a tree beside the fireplace in December is not part of their world; as they grow older they will appreciate why it is not, and why a menorah is.

Through the generations and across the world, our people have successfully adapted to living as guests among disparate societies, but only by retaining a strong sense of our history, the values of our heritage, and a familiarity with the culture that keeps our sense of identity alive and vibrant. Compromise these, and the Jew, together with his Judaism, will surely vanish. Preserve them, and we guarantee that the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greeks will be renewed in every generation as a victory of the Jewish people over assimilation.


December 17, 2005

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Visitor Comments: 16

(16) Jodi M., January 2, 2006 12:00 AM

This article came at a very important time for me. I am married and have 4 sons who go to a jewish day school. We are conservative but we lean toward orthodox.
I have a cousin, my best friend, who has had many hardships in her life...her Mother had scleraderma and was sick for most of my cousin's childhood, her mother passed away at age 47. Her father died 2 years later at a young age from cancer. She has 2 daughters in college and a son who is 15 with severe cerebral palsy. We had a conversation just yesterday about her celebrating Christmas and Chanukah. She said she has done so since childhood even thought both parents are jewish? I couldn't understand this?
Our cousin passed away a little over a year ago at age 42 leaving 2 young sons. She told me that this event changed her perspective on religion and God. She was active in her temple when her daughters attended and were Bat Mitzvahed and confirmed but when they were done, she stopped participating in the temple. I will forward this article to her (The Candles & The Tree by Rabbi Yonason Goldson).
Maybe she will appreciate the significance of Chanukah.
Thank you.
Jodi M.
Cleveland, OHio

(15) m.fishman, December 27, 2005 12:00 AM


how blessed you are, which I know you know every single day of your life; all of us who grew up devoid of the meaning of our yiddishkeit, not knowing why saying the "J" name in songs just did not feel quite right; not knowing of the connection a Jew can have to his Creator evey moment of our existence; and now knows it -- we know the blessings and the miracles that brought each of us to such a place. Do keep sharing your recollections and insights.

(14) Anonymous, December 25, 2005 12:00 AM

Would really like to hear more about what EXACTLY happened at the Yeshiva to turn Rabbi Goldson towards observance.

(13) Marvin Kravetsky, December 24, 2005 12:00 AM

Truth and Chanukah

Thank You Rabbi Goldson. Your Article on
Chanukah is Truth and it is greatly
appreciated. Today, Saturday newspaper
was ripe with Jews who do not for whatever reason understand why they are
Jews and so they are so obviously jealous of the Xmas Holiday. How Shallow
and what a shame!They have gold in their hands and yet they see only cheap,
shiny lights.

(12) Richard Salcer, December 22, 2005 12:00 AM

To be or not to be?

A people apart? That we are. Does assimilation cause greater hatred of the Jewish people? Only spiritual assimilation does – and the hatred comes not from gentiles, but from Jews who feel undercut and betrayed by those who succumb to the dubious lures of other religions. Can one one look like one's neighbors and still be a "real" Jew? Of course. The difference between religion and faith lies in what proof one needs to have faith in God. The Jew knows God is there because of what God has done for all of humanity. The Jew does not demand visible symbols of faith, such as statues, gargantuan edifices or gaudy street processions to know God. The Jew can have connection with God without fear of departure from dogma. A Jew can complain about circumstances, even to God, without fear of eternal damnation or need of a saintly interlocutor. To trust that God is there, even without earthly physical evidence, is the sign and meaning of faith. To know of the existence of Heaven, without dwelling on how to get there, is the way that Jews are a people apart. We do not spend our lives waiting for Heaven. There is much to do to honor love of God by living a good life. I look with dismay at those who are JINO, Jewish in name only, who know not one whit of their faith or its traditions, who make passing attempts to observe the visual aspects of our holidays, while cutting corners to make observance fit in with their reduced attention spans. On the other end of the spectrum are those who strive mightily to uphold all 613 Commandments. In between is the vast majority of Jews, who to varying degrees keep the Sabbath, observe the laws of keeping a Kosher home and date and marry other Jews. The goal is clear: we must do what is necessary to keep Judaism from withering on the vine. We must not close the gates of the temple to those who are less than perfect in their Judaism. We must remember that looking different from other cultures among whom we live was not a Jewish preference. It was imposed on us by the local rulers whose xenophobia and stupidity generated unreasonable fear against that which they did not understand. They couldn't tell a Jew from other subjects without limiting what Jews could wear, where they could live, or what trade they could enter. Over the centuries, the layers of apartness imposed on us by other cultures wove their way into Jewish custom, much like a collection of labels affixed to well-traveled luggage. These labels have become baggage in themselves. The answer to these evil edicts lies in the individual's choice to keep or reject these archaic decrees. They are not from God. Loving the Torah, studying it and living by its precepts is what will keep Judaism alive. Knowing that we have faith and belief in the S'hma, our most sacred prayer, will keep Judaism alive. Supporting the reality and the future of the Jewish State will keep Judaism alive. Remembering what Chanukah is really about, beyond the rote lighting of candles, will keep Judaism alive. In this December, as all Decembers, we must rejoice in the fellowhip of Jews around the world, who use the same ancient language and the same timeless Commandments to light more than just candles, but a light unto the world. This light from tiny candles is warmer and more enduring and more embracing than the glare from gaudily-bedecked trees and the materialism that they represent.

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