It struck me, in the beginning days of Chanukah, that the traditional approach to all of our holidays, Shabbats and other periodic celebrations more often than not hamstrings us. Until this year, in which I’ve been consumed with other learning projects, I’ve always joined the crowd and tried to study intensively about the upcoming holiday, usually to the temporary exclusion of everything else. But this year has been different and I’ve given only a little pre-thought to Chanukah as it approached. Counterintuitively, this has been the most moving and engaging Chanukah I’ve experienced in recent memory!
It should be obvious, but we blind ourselves to this fact, that all this preparation creates expectations and, at the very very best, these expectations cap our experiences. More usually, they force us into trying to preprogram our experience, at best warping what we really experience.
Of course, it’s worth learning what we have to do to participate in each Chag and Shabbat, but, for the most part that’s not very complicated. There is no need for endless how-to shiurim (classes) to tell us to light one candle the first night, two the second, three the third, etc. Even the “fine points” of where to start, where to add, which candle to light first, approximately when and where to light and how long the candles should last, can usually fit on the back of the candle box!
While there is value in performing mitzvot, however we actually do them, it’s minimal when we “play” them by rote. Perhaps a much-needed expression of the emunah, “belief” and bitachon, trust, that are so often touted, is that by performing the mitzva, we’ll receive the inner experience our neshamot, souls, actually require this time around.
Let’s experience Chanukah and everything else just as it comes to us. We can’t, and shouldn’t waste time trying to, re-experience even our best experiences of the past. Likewise, we can’t “dial up” the most exciting-sounding experience of someone else. It might be useful, afterwards, to study some of the deeper insights and compare them to our own, to see how our experience fits into the great tapestry of Jewish experience, but on the other hand, perhaps all we need to do is share it with family and friends, and, of course, with ourselves.