Still new to my sixth decade, I have been seeing a lot of my doctor lately, as he engages in a great deal of putatively salubrious poking and prodding. He, in turn, would like to see less of me. Thirty pounds less. And with an overweight friend having suddenly expired at 54 a fortnight ago, it is time to make light of myself rather than the situation.
A simple look around at my fellow denizens of Miami informs me that the nonagenarian types make it that far down the road by not traveling too laden. These wispy whisperers wend their way through the vagaries and vicissitudes that fell all their mightier counterparts. This prompts the thesis that the way to live longer is by giving up some of the space you are occupying. You kind of scootch over in your seat to leave room for the new guy, so there is no urgency to evacuate. As the Talmud reports, when Alexander the Great asked the Jewish sages how to achieve longevity, they said: “Die a little so you may live a lot.”
If your body must shrink to survive, how does this affect the mind? Here again the Jewish tradition suggests the mind can be expanded as the body consumes less. In the words of the Mishna, elderly scholars cultivate orderly minds while aged ignoramuses descend into frustration. The symbol for this notion is the candle, where a slender wick can support a brilliant light. Which brings us to the holiday of Hanukkah, making its annual eight-day visit beginning Sunday night, December 21.
Like every holiday in every culture, the theme is embraced by the few while the pomp is enjoyed by the many. Hanukkah is a good time any way you slice it, the dancing lights reflected in glad eyes. Families get together, not for long laborious feasts but for chatting, snacking, playing dreidel for small amounts of money. The atmosphere is a perfect pitch of general excitement without excess. Everyone from little kids to old codgers gets into a cheerful mode.
Yet the inner substance of the time is the celebration of intellect. Ultimately what lives on, oblivious to the tick of the clock, is the idea. That is the light which is never extinguished, the immortal truth.
Right now our entire society is on a diet. Vast sums of money have disappeared from the collective wealth of mankind. Every sort of miscalculation and misappropriation imaginable have collaborated to shrink our physical footprint. We hope this condition does not persist. We press harder at our various tasks of living and wait for a turning tide.
Yet it would be a terrible waste to sulk through this episode. The choice is ours: we can make something of our predicament. We can seek refuge in the life of the mind. While the examiners sort out the banking situation, we can recommit to the examined life. Perhaps the light was flickering too feebly while we disported ourselves in the realm of the superficial. We are being called again to sort the substance of our experiences. Let us embrace content, not discontent.
Whatever exactly took place between the Jews and Greeks more than two millennia ago, the insight emerging from the conflict still glimmers: it is that right makes might. Maybe only once in a very long time a nation comes along to accept that challenge, to apportion its power proportionate to virtue. The United States was founded to be such a place, and largely manages to be even in its weakest moments. Why don’t we curl up this year while the candles are burning and reread our Bibles, review our Constitutions.
We might be surprised to learn that if we preserve the idea, it will sustain us and give us strength to rise again.