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Happy Chanukah! (Have and Have Nots)

Dec 20, 2011 by Rabbi Jennifer Krause  | 

Are you a “have” or a “have not?” Quick.  Don’t reflect. Just answer.  Which one best describes you? 

Now deconstruct away.  How did you arrive at your response?  Did you define it by your own standards?  In relationship to that anonymous, ubiquitous “they,” your peers, neighbors, that cousin you rarely speak to except for when seder is at your sister’s house who made a killing in a start-up social networking site? And did your answer include just the slightest hint of what you thought it should be?

In September the Pew Research Center for People & the Press in partnership with The Washington Post surveyed 1,000 adults on this very topic just days before Rosh Hashanah.  48% of those 1,000 revealed that when push came to shove they would call themselves “haves,” while 34% self-identify as “have nots.”  In 1988, however, only 17% viewed themselves as “have-nots.”

Surely much has happened between now and then that easily could influence our answers.  “Black Monday”—not the day-after-Thanksgiving sales during which generally mild-mannered human beings wrestle one another to the ground for the last XBox 360, but October 19, 1987 when the Dow dropped 508 points in one day. And unfortunately not too far in our rearview mirror, we also have September 29, 2008, when the Dow plummeted 778 points—just hours before Rosh Hashanah, earning the dubious historical distinction as the biggest single point loss ever in one trading day. 

Everything from global protests to televised debates to political promises to day-to-day experiences simply buying a gallon of milk and thinking about how we used to spend “before” and how we spend “now,” has all of us—whether consciously or unconsciously—placing ourselves in these categories: am I a “have” or am I a “have-not?”  And after all that surveying and review of empirical data, the upshot of the study, and the words of those who commissioned and conducting it themselves was this: while perceptions fluctuate in relationship to variables, such as political party affiliation and race, there is no consensus.  The answer is subjective.

Did we need a study to tell us this?  Not likely.  But insofar as the question itself emerges from an economy that remains in ruins, it is a Hanukkah question, as well.   

While public and personal perceptions of what it means to be a “have” or a “have not” may forever fluctuate, Hanukkah offers us a transcendent, objective clarity through the lights themselves.

The 12th century physician, rabbi, legal scholar, and overall Swiss Army knife of Jewish life, Maimonides (the Rambam), makes it rather simple for us to possess clear-cut definitions of what it means to be a “have” and a “have not.”

According to the Rambam, a “have” is someone who:

1) Has enough oil to light the shammos (helper candle) and one additional candle for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah (i.e. sixteen candles total).

2) Has enough oil to light Hanukkah candles, Shabbat candles (when Hanukkah coincides with Shabbat), and wine to make Kiddush.

A Hanukkah “have-not” is someone who must prioritize accordingly:

1) If you have no food, you must borrow money to acquire what you need to light the Hanukkah lights.

2) If the only food you have is that which you have received through tzedakah from the community, you must sell it to acquire the basic necessities required to light the Hanukkah lights.

3) If you have nothing but a coat, you must sell it to light the Hanukkah lights.

4) If you are down to your last coin and must choose between buying wine for kiddush and the basics for lighting the Hanukkah lights, you must spend it on the lights.

Basically, for eight days every person who can light the Hanukkah lights, meaning by whatever means necessary, is a “have.”  For eight days the definition is concrete.

We certainly could take issue with the Rambam’s reasoning.  After all, these are rather extreme measures to take for what essentially is a symbol, for a mitzvah that is not even delineated in the Torah, and one that the rabbis of the Talmud arguably brought into being seemingly out of thin air.

We certainly could argue that the dollars and cents of providing each and every human being with food, clothing, shelter, clean water, health care, inoculations, and vital medication—all indubitably life-saving fundamentals, in no way disappear during the eight days of Hanukkah and surely should neither be sacrificed on the altar of nor take a back seat to lighting some holiday lights. 

Yet the Rambam’s laser-like focus on Hanukkah’s oddly democratic absolute has a critical bigger picture impact that drives our ability to guarantee and deliver the outsized need for all of the aforementioned, and more. 

Even though we know we are commanded to uphold the mitzvah of tzedakah, to contribute financially regardless of our net resources, our financial contributions are in some way based on how we answer the question: are you a “have” or are you a “have not?” What we do with our resources significantly hinges on the category in which we place ourselves.  And oftentimes that category affects our perception of how capable and/or responsible we are for pursuing justice in this way. 

We might think we can temporarily leave the work to a “have” until or unless we cease to be a “have not.”  And regardless of how many zeroes are on a single paycheck or in a checking account, these thoughts are human; they are not fueled by selfishness or malintent, more often than not by practicality, and oftentimes by being overwhelmed in the face of how great the world’s needs are and how small our ability is to meet them.  This is all the more the case in hard times, when even the abiding awareness that someone else always has it far worse than we do does not lessen or ameliorate the need for us to address our own troubles and uphold our own commitments. 

This precisely is why the lights matter so much.  They are not, in fact, a matter of currency, but a reminder of conviction.  This is what the Rambam teaches: light leads to memory, and memory leads to action.  What clearer memory is there in the struggle for social justice then a chapter in our people’s history when the single-minded focus on justice in the face of an almost certainly impossible and unwinnable struggle won the day?  And what better way to remind ourselves that we are all perennial “haves” in our capacity to pursue justice for eight days out of the year, even when the other 300-plus invariably become a blur that cause us to divide ourselves, or to be divided into, “haves” and “have nots?”

In the words of Noble Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee:

. . . never despise a humble beginning. That’s my word of wisdom. No matter how small, if you have a conviction that this is something that is going to change your community, if you have a conviction that this is something that is going to change your family, if you have a conviction that this is something that is going to do some good, step out and do it.

Haneirot ha’llalu kodesh hen.  These Hanukkah lights are sacred indeed.

Rabbi Jennifer Krause

Rabbi Jennifer E. Krause is the author of The Answer: Making Sense of Life, One Question at a Time (Perigee). Her writing and commentary also have been featured in Newsweek, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Jennifer has spent more than a decade teaching and lecturing in New York and throughout North America. She is a dynamic professional known for creating unique points of connection between ancient wisdom and the spiritual, cultural, and social issues of the day. Jennifer serves as the High Holidays rabbi at Manhattan's 92nd Street Y, and is the first woman to hold that post in the Y's 137-year history.

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