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Prayers & Passages: Chanukah and the Mitzvah of Kindness

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By Cheri Weiss

As a youngster, Chanukkah was my favorite Jewish holiday. I admit that it was mainly about the presents. I was caught up in the whole gift-giving madness of the season. Each year I agonized over whether or not I would get the gifts I had my heart set on. As I grew older, I was wracked with anxiety over what gifts to give to my family and friends. All these years later, I don’t remember a single gift received or purchased. (I do, however, recall asking for the game “Battleship” and being incensed when my mother determined that it was a more appropriate gift for my brother!)

What I do remember vividly (besides the early lesson in sexism) was the joy I felt when sitting around the table with my family, eating latkes, playing with dreidels and lighting candles. I can even recall making sour faces at those who ate their latkes with apple sauce instead of sour cream. The horror!

I moved to Israel in my early 20s and stayed for six inspiring years. Ever the American Jew, imagine my surprise upon learning that in that country, Chanukkah was not considered as a gift-giving holiday. The Christmas-inspired frenzy that permeated the American Jewish community had not reached the Holy Land. Recalibrating my relationship with this holiday, I reveled in the joyous ambience that permeated the streets of Tel Aviv during the morning rush to buy sufganiot (jelly-filled donuts), a special food that was only available around the time of Chanukkah. I also marveled at seeing the lit Chanukiot (Chanukkah menorahs) glowing from the windows of so many homes. It was a relief to focus my attention on something that was larger than myself.

In late October, we read the Torah parsha “Vayeira.” As the story unfolds, Abraham (who was likely still recovering from the circumcision described at the end of the previous parsha) looks up to see three men standing nearby.

“When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground…” (Genesis 18:2) Imploring them to stay for a while for some rest and nourishment, we are told that, “…Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. ‘Quick,’ he said, ‘get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.’” (Genesis 18:6)

Notice the words used: Abraham runs from his tent to greet the guests. He hurried to speak to Sarah about preparing food for their guests, while insisting that she do so quickly. We see Abraham’s sense of urgency to perform the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (hospitality to wayfarers). Even post-circumcision pain could not dampen his eagerness to show kindness to others. Abraham did not just fulfill these mitzvot (even before they were officially declared mitzvot), he embraced them with joy.

We, too, should feel this kind of excitement when we have the opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah, especially one that has a loving, positive impact on others. Let us approach this festival of lights by bringing light into the world of others through mitzvot: feeding the hungry, attending a shiva minyan, visiting the sick, welcoming the stranger into our midst, among many others. Let us do so with joy and compassion, and yes, even a sense of urgency.

The next time an opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah of kindness presents itself, I hope that, like Abraham, you will quickly run to perform it.

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