By Irv Levy
About 2,200 years ago when Israel was ruled by the Greeks, Jews were forced to accept Greek culture and beliefs instead of Jewish laws and the profound belief in G‑d. Against all odds, a small poorly armed group of Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated the mightiest army in the world and reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. When they sought to rededicate the Temple to the service of G-d and light the menorah, they found only enough holy olive oil for one day. Miraculously, they lit the menorah and the one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days.
During Hanukkah we can eat our favorite oil-fried foods (without guilt! It’s a mitzvah!) to commemorate the oil that lasted for eight days. The best of course – latkes and doughnuts.
The old joke: What is this Jewish holiday (any Jewish holiday) about? The response, always the same – They wanted to destroy us, we won and then we ate! Sounds like a common thread, but the true common thread is that G-d granted a miracle and in return we offer our deepest gratitude.
Gratitude runs deeply throughout Judaism. How do we express our gratitude? By giving our love and devotion to G-d, by following the commandments and by sharing (Tzedakah). Tzedakah means “righteousness”, but more commonly is used to signify charity. The Jewish concept of “charity” differs from the modern Western understanding of “charity”. The latter is understood as an act of goodwill and generosity; tzedakah is an ethical and religious obligation to do what is right and just as part of a spiritual life.
My friend David recently sent me the obituary for Pablo Eisenberg, of blessed memory. Pablo who passed away on October 18 at the age of 90, famously authored an article posing the question, who benefits more from charity? The person giving it, or the person getting it?
Through my time at the Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies, I have gained a greater understanding and appreciation for Tzedakah. I strongly believe the answer is equal. The person giving charity is receiving a value of satisfaction and joy equal to the value of the gift given, and the person receiving charity is giving appreciation and gratitude equal to what they have received. In addition to the spiritual joy that charitable giving provides, there are proven benefits to your health gained through philanthropy:
- Improved Self-Esteem & Self-Worth
- Positive Moods and Low Depression Rates
- Longer Life Expectancy
So, is Hanukkah best? I can only answer from my personal perspective. While Hanukkah is not considered a major Jewish holiday, it has morphed into a fun one. The kids look forward to receiving presents and there is no greater joy for a parent than bringing happiness to our children. As I proposed earlier, it’s all equal and the thrill and joy that kids experience is equal to the spiritual satisfaction we receive. And who doesn’t love doughnuts?
Irv Levy is the Executive Director of Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies.