The “heroes” of the Hanukah narrative are the “Makabee’im” – named after their leader, Y’hudah, who was called “ha-Makabee” – “The Hammer” – for his forceful military opposition to the Syrian Greeks.
As Americans, we tend to be just as zealous about “winning” — acquiring personal wealth, success and status — as the Makabee’im were about rededicating the Temple.
Who are our “heroes?”
It doesn’t matter what we do to become “successful,” as long as we don’t get caught doing something morally, ethically and/or legally wrong. If we get caught, a degree of “shame” becomes attached to us – not so much for doing something wrong, as for getting caught. To get caught, without having the accompanying personal influence to buy or maneuver our way out of the consequences, is taken as a sign of inferiority. We become “déclassé.” As the late Leona Helmsley said, “[Only] Little people pay taxes.”
We reward “letting nothing stand in our way;” we scorn the unsuccessful. It seems to me that given the opportunity to acquire wealth by hurting others versus doing it with concern for others, America honors the former much more, and much faster, than the latter. The lack of concern is, itself, considered more “praiseworthy,” because of the ruthlessness it demonstrates.
Ruthlessness is zeal, in a culture that worships winning.
We might be fond of the Roma Downey character in “Touched by an Angel,” but as a culture, we really admire “J.R. Ewing” – almost to the point of envy. I try to think of a gentle, compassionate character on television today; one doesn’t come easily to mind. But a whole spate of shows in which people not only compete, but face humiliation if and when they lose, are the most popular shows on television, now.
My impression is that it has gotten worse in the last 25 years, although FDR was called a “traitor to his class” (and this, in a supposedly “classless” society), for helping the poor during the Great Depression. Even earlier, in the 1920’s, Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein wrote: “
“Stand on the corner of a busy street. Observe the faces of the hundreds who pass by you, intent on their affairs. See the tense look in their eyes, the thin line of determination on their lips, the deep lines between the eyebrows. How many happy faces do you see? How many genuine, kindly smiles? How much carefree laughter do you hear? How many feet of all those that rush by you move in gentle, serene, unhurried rhythm? In all that stream of humanity, do you see one face that has learned…the joy of life?”
How strange a culture we have. It encourages people to destroy their happiness and contentment in the pursuit of “success,” and harshly derides those who reach out to help the “less successful.” And yet, we call ours a culture that respects human life above all else.
We seem to reward naked aggression, calling it “healthy competitiveness.”
Competitive sports, which should be entertainment, have become as psychically bruising, for the athletes as well as the spectators, as Roman gladiatorial combat was 2,000 years ago. I’ve been to Yankee Stadium for winning games and for losing games. The tone of the crowd leaving the stadium after a losing game is palpably different than after a winning one. The pressure for athletes to use “performance-enhancing drugs” – such a euphemism!! – is greater now, because so much more money and status is at stake.
I once accompanied a Senior Citizen group to Atlantic City for a day. On the bus down, everyone was chatty and excited. I remarked about it to the group’s leader. She said to me, “Just wait and see what it’s like going back home.” On the way home, the bus was almost silent, with a heavy weight in the atmosphere. No one had “won big,” if at all. Had they gone down there, seriously hoping to win “big money?” The “odds” are famously against it. Hadn’t they gone just for fun?
We decry the commercialization of Hanukah, but we compete even in terms of religion. Who has the fanciest tallit? Who has the most power at the synagogue (not the rabbi, to be sure)? We compete in our weddings, in our bar and bat mitzvahs, and even our funerals. A couple of years ago, there was an article that children who weren’t Jewish, who were reaching bar/bat mitzvah age, wanted “big parties,” just like the “Jewish kids.” I shuddered, thinking that this was the world’s impression of Judaism. We spend huge sums to build enormous synagogues, but pay our Hebrew-school-teachers, and other Jewish educators, pennies. Even our clergy is often not given the respect it deserves.
The list goes on and on. Yet, is it exclusively a “Jewish” problem? Hardly. What is all this competition, if not “American?” Even driving has become a “competitive sport,” regardless of the danger and discomfort it creates. There has always been “road rage” and “aggressive driving.” But there have not always been words, or names for them, because they just weren’t that typical. What does it say about us, and about our culture, if we now have to give them a name? What causes people to drive like this, if not a culturally-based attitude that “winning is everything,” even when it comes to driving around the corner?
Our culture even tells us to have a “winning attitude,” a “winning smile,” and so on.
A sermon can certainly be a time and place for social criticism. But if it remains at the level of a harangue, it runs the danger of discouraging the very people it’s trying to inspire.
If we look more deeply into this attitude of “winning,” we see that it’s really about a sense of self-worth. The more competitive a person is, the more he or she is really saying, “I base my sense of self-worth on my success being greater than another’s,” or “…on my house being bigger than another’s,” etc. The more they want to outdo, or “beat” others, the more they really give others the power to determine their self-worth for them.
I might even criticize the rabbis, in this regard. The Midrash says that Aharon, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, is saddened that he can’t give the same offerings as the tribal princes. To comfort him, G-d reassures him that his offering – lighting the m’norah – will be perpetual, while theirs occurs only once. Granted, this Midrash is based on the mention of Aharon’s mitzvah following the pasukim – passages – referring to the princes’ offerings. The Midrash is always ready to draw a lesson from such a sequence. It finds a special importance in Aharon’s mitzvah that is not explicit in the text itself.
But “person-to-person,” as it were, what would we say to someone who was saddened that he “didn’t have as much to give” as someone else? We would say something that the rabbis themselves say in Pirkei Avot:
“Who is rich? The one who is happy with his/her portion.”
Rabbeinu Yonah, in his commentary to this, quotes Kohelet (Ecclesiastes/King Solomon): “…one who loves money will never be satisfied with money.” Psychologically, we might say: One who bases his/her self-worth on money, will never have a permanent sense of self-worth. One who bases his/her self-worth on “winning” will never have a permanent sense of self-worth, either. There will always be someone who has more. There will always be another challenge that you will have to meet and “beat,” to reinforce your own good opinion of yourself. The very peace of mind you seek in having a good sense of self-worth.
What’s more, such contentment is a spiritual challenge. To have an unshakeable sense of self-worth, we must find that thing about ourselves that is good, worthy, and never changes. Only one thing can satisfy that: our own Divine essence, as Rabbi Lichtenstein wrote (1922):
“As a groundwork for achieving contentment, man must first realize the divinity that is in him and in every other human being. When he realizes truly that the essence of him, as of everyone else, is divine, he cannot envy others for puerile attainments or differences which have no fundamental value. All men are inherently equal. One is not superior because of his abundance, nor is another inferior because of his want. Poverty is only a discomfort, not a disgrace; and wealth is a convenience, not an elevation. Men are equal in essence, because the same Divine Mind dwells in each one of them. One who regards life from this higher angle can never see himself either inferior or superior to any other man. Therefore, he can have no grounds for arrogance or envy.”
(I must inject a comment here: In older sources, the language is not always “gender-neutral.” I’ve occasionally tried re-writing passages, and will usually do so for a short one. But in longer passages, too many “his/hers”-type changes can interfere with the smoothness of the language itself, making it harder to listen to. So, I respectfully hope that no offense is taken at this literal quotation from a book written over 80 years ago, but which otherwise makes a point still valid.)
The Ba’al Shem Tov (known by the acronym “The Besht,” the founder of the Hasidic movement) addressed this, too. For him, the solution lay in remembering the Psalm 16:8:
“‘(Sh’vi’ti) — I have set the L-rd before me continually.’ Sh’vi’ti is an expression of hishtavut (equanimity). No matter what happens, whether people praise me or shame me…it is all the same…Whatever may happen, I say that it comes from G-d…”
But we must also remember that the Besht understood “the L-rd” – written in Hebrew as Y’H’V”H – as a “Name” that described a process of the universe gradually and continuously being created from its original, undifferentiated Divine essence. So, what the Besht was “remembering” was later expressed by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady as: Nothing else exists but G-d, (even though this is only fully seen and known by G-d).
Our “heroes,” then, can be those who have “acquired the most” in this world, or they can be those who have “mastered themselves.” As Pirkei Avot says:
“Who is mighty? One who controls his/her impulses.”