It’s Hanukkah, and the malleable metaphor of light amidst darkness will inspire many important themes – hope amidst cynicism, clarity amidst doubt, joy amidst sadness, etc. But I think there’s a less obvious, yet no-less-important, theme related to the source of light – the oil.
It’s hard to get pumped about something lasting longer than it should have. I’ve been wearing the same coat since high school, and let me tell you – no one’s excited for me. That 30-minute meeting that lasted 2 hours? Again, not a cause for celebration. Me not getting sick from eating expired chicken? Perhaps a miracle, but certainly not holiday-worthy.
Why did the rabbis highlight the story of oil burning beyond expectation? Perhaps it was to get us thinking about scarcity, both real and perceived.
Like the Maccabees who had to work with less than what they needed, many of us might be feeling depleted in various aspects of our lives. It’s hard to sit with that lacking as well as the longing for more than what we currently have.
But also like the Maccabees, it’s possible that we already have exactly what we need.
There’s a famous chassidic story about a man – Isaac ben Yakil of Krakow – who dreams about buried treasure in a far away place, so he travels there to find it. When he gets there, he doesn’t find the treasure, but he meets a guard who tells him that he had a similar dream about treasure buried under the stove of a man named Isaac ben Yakil of Krakow. Of course, Isaac ben Yakil goes back home and finds the treasure, which was in his own home the whole time.
At times, what’s missing is only the proper perspective, an issue that Krista Tippett calls a “poverty of imagination.” Some resources aren’t as limited as we think.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks connects this idea to another aspect of the holiday – the ruling that we can light one Hanukkah candle from another candle. Despite the objection of a dissenting rabbi in the Talmud, we rule that light doesn’t diminish when shared. Rabbi Sacks then adds:
“When it comes to spiritual goods as opposed to material goods, the more I share, the more I have. If I share my knowledge, or faith, or love with others, I won’t have less; I may even have more.”
When we act from a scarcity mindset, we often end up warping or misusing the resource we deem to be scarce. Even in times of abundance, the fear that it may run out at any moment can once again induce the scarcity mindset.
The weekly Torah reading, which is always the same on Hanukkah, begins with Pharaoh’s dream about fat cows and the skinny cows, which Joseph interprets to mean years of abundance followed by years of scarcity. He then helps Pharaoh plan for the years of famine during the years of plenty.
Scarcity and abundance are interdependent – we wouldn’t know one without the other. Everyone will experience moments of abundance and moments of scarcity. As best as we can, we should cultivate and protect our resources to prevent or minimize moments of depletion – like Joseph advised Pharaoh. We should also remember that a lot is still possible from within a place of scarcity. A lot can happen from just a little. After all, the entire universe was created from a single spark
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