Tuesday, December 8, 2015
Lessons of Hannukah: A Little Bit of Oil Goes a Long Way
On Sunday, immediately after returning home from Israel, I attended and taught at a conference entitled Protecting Creation: A Jewish Response to Global Warming. The connection to the fact that on this very day we were all awaiting the onset of Hannukah, when we celebrate the miracle of a little bit of oil was not lost on me.
Hanukah has always struck me as a funny holiday in some ways – acknowledging the notion that a little bit of resources lasted for so long, both in terms of human resources in the Maccabbees and with respect to natural resources regarding the small flask of oil that lit the way for eight days; while so defined too often in our world today by excesses and wastefulness, including excessive packaging of too many gifts that we too often don’t even need. One could make a strong case that Hannukah is more about measuring and using our human and natural resources carefully and intentionally even though this is often the furthest thing from people’s minds. No doubt this is due in no small part to the influence of our larger commercial culture. Interestingly enough, I have heard many devout Christians also lament that the true meaning of their own days of observance at this season has lost traction in our materialistic world.
So, allow me for a moment to take a different look at some of the compelling lessons of Hannukah and really just about every moment in our Jewish lives in reminding us of our ongoing relationship with our world and Earth as well as our responsibility to care for it and use our resources appropriately.
Look at these texts carefully:
“When you besiege a city… do not destroy (lo tashchit) any of its trees…” (Deuteronomy 20:19)
Rav Zutra said: “Whoever covers an oil lamp, or uncovers a naphtha lamp, transgresses the law of bal tashchit.” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 67b)
“Righteous people … do not waste in this world even a mustard seed. They become sorrowful with every wasteful and destructive act that they see, and if they can, they use all their strength to save everything possible from destruction. But the wicked … rejoice in the destruction of the world, just as they destroy themselves.” (Sefer HaChinuch 529; 13th Century)
Clearly, we are taught here and in so many other texts to not be wasteful and to respect all facets of Creation at all times, including conflict, use of resources, and protection of our planet. This is more than relevant and profoundly necessary at this point in our human narrative. The practice of conservation and the notion that our resources are not limitless are well-established truths from long ago and frame the basic Jewish practice to not be wasteful, observing the body of laws known as Bal Tashchit.
Taking into account the notion that there is an increasing divide between the haves and the have nots in our world and the proliferation of initiatives of “giving back” during this holiday season so that those of us who have so much can show gratitude and share our bounty with others, what if we were all to give these lessons as gifts to those we love?
For many years, while my children were growing up, we participated in a wonderful program called Christian Children’s Fund and sent our monthly checks to support a family in Uganda. Every Hannukah I had a deal with my children. Whatever I would spend on them, we also spent on Beth Nikalanda, the child we sponsored and her family. We would send a check to CCF and then get letters back about how the same amount of money that supported our American Girl dolls (which are now parented by my daughter’s girls) bought lambs, blankets, grain and other supplies that supported this entire family. This, I believe was one of the lessons of gratitude and feeling the blessings of our lives for my children. This was most likely the most important Hannukah gift I gave them. We also came to have a great deal of respect for Beth in being so self-sufficient and skilled in working the land and helping her family to survive and thrive in their reality, where they HAD to be careful and mindful and intentional with their limited resources.
It is indeed a challenge to watch as less and less people have more and more and use their disproportionate amount of energy and resources while trying to be mindful of those in need and resources that are at risk. We are all so aware of the present work on Sustainable Development Goals in our world, various reports of climate change and global warming with 2015 taking its place as the hottest year on record. Yet, awareness is not enough; we have to carefully consider our own individual footprints and impact on these factors and how we can individually and collectively work to keep our world safe and protect the Creation, its light and all, that God entrusted to our care so long ago. This sensibility and the need for action is the most important gift we can give to those we love this Hannukah. Only then, will our small amount of oil go far enough for all to be sustained and live well. This is one important way we can perpetuate the miracle of Hannukah in our times.
If you are interested in more materials and resources, check these sites to learn more about this important aspect of our Chiyuv as protectors and workers of the planet.
Chag Urim Sameach – May the lights of the candles we look at this Hannukah remind us of the blessings in our lives and the need to hope for a better and more well used planet.