Candles in the Wind

Tonight begins Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, the commemoration of the rededication of the Temple hundreds of years ago. Normally I would light candles and celebrate with my family, but tonight that’s impossible: I’m still on campus, hung between finals, and candle-lighting isn’t exactly allowed in the dorms. (I’ve got a friend bringing me his lighter, and then I’ll at least light the candles outside.)

Since it’s been a long time since I’ve last lit any candles, and since it’s been a long time since I’ve written anything about the Pirkei Avot, I figured tonight would be the prime time to reprise both.

3.16 Rabbi Yishmael taught:

Be compliant with your seniors, be affable with your juniors, and greet every person with a cheerful manner.

I was reviewing my political theory notes earlier tonight and I came across a passage in which I wrote that Aristotle is the common sense philosopher: He makes intuitive arguments that seem inherently obvious because they were based on observations of humans in their natural habitat, whatever that might be. Sometimes I feel the rabbis were the same way: They state the obvious, and yet somehow we’re supposed to learn deep lessons from it.

Essentially, this teaching says three things:

  1. Obey your elders.
  2. Be friendly to your youngers.
  3. Greet everyone with a smile.

About here, though you wouldn’t notice it, my friend arrived with his lighter and I took a short break to light some Chanukah candles. While fighting against the wind and random spiders to keep the flames alight, I found myself thinking of another thing I’d scribbled in my notes: Never believe anything a teacher tells you without first thinking critically about it and deciding it’s true–or at least worth believing.

This brought me to another piece of philosophy: Plato’s “Analogy of the Cave.” Essentially, Plato describes a cave in which people are chained in place and watch shadows on the wall in front of them and listen to the echoes that reverberate around them–this, they believe, is all of reality–because they can see nothing else.

Unfortunately, that isn’t all of reality, they just can’t see what’s true: Higher up in the cave a fire burns, and between the tethered people and the flames walk another class, and it is their shadows and their voices the others hear. These people seem to be free, for they have possessions and move about carelessly, and in the light of the fire, everything seems enlightened.

Unfortunately, they’re still in the cave–and further up, outside the cave, is the open world: A place of truth, goodness, and knowledge. Here dwell the philosophers, these lovers of wisdom, who have escaped the cave. Except, Plato tells us, they should not stay here, they should return to the cave and help turn those in chains toward the light and let them see the world for all its grandeur.

Unfortunately, once you’ve seen the light, you don’t want to plunge yourself back into the darkness, and so even though there are always the enlightened few who could change the world, it is much easier not to, so they don’t.

That brings me back to the rabbis. Why should we obey our elders? Why should we be friendly to those younger than us? Why should we greet everyone with an overflowing dose of cheer? Why should we care to listen at all?

Need I remind you, the rabbis lived long ago?

Then again, so did Plato and Aristotle.

I could easily present counterexamples to disprove each of these statements, and I could do that and leave it there and assume there is nothing to be learned. But circumstantial, hypothetical scenarios shouldn’t define our lives, should they? Shouldn’t empirical evidence at least have a marginal say in what we do?

In general, I’ve found that people older than me do, indeed, know better–in most scenarios. Teaching new skills, doing administrative work, taking care of things they’ve been doing longer than I’ve been alive–and in those cases, yes, it does benefit me to do as they say. Sometimes, however, they don’t know what’s best, but generally, through discussion, I can find the jewel in their advice that I can carry through into anything I do.

In general, I find people younger than me just need direction or someone to look up, and being affable is a great way to help fill that need. I’m considering applying to be a resident mentor for sophomores next year, and I can definitely see how being a friend to them will help me lead them through what could otherwise be a tumultuous year.

In general, I find I’m happy when I see someone else happy–the brain likes to imitate what it sees, so when I’m greeted by someone who’s cheerful and smiling, I’m likely to feel cheerful and smiling, too.

That makes me think of one more thing: This teaching is meant to apply to everyone, not just to me. Could you imagine how much brighter the world would be if everyone greeted everyone cheerfully? There’d be no disputes, no disagreements, no arguments if first we smiled at each other before moving on to other things.

That also makes me realize that while I’m instructed to obey my elders, they’re instructed to be affable toward me, and while I’m told to be friendly toward those younger than me, they’re likewise told to listen to me. It all comes together in this massive binary tree of possibilities, doesn’t it, perfectly defining an amazing equivalence relation in which we can all relate to one another on remarkably positive terms.

But don’t take my word for it. Think about it for yourself.

And while your at it, remember that sometimes we’re like those candles in the wind–struggling to stay upright, struggling to keep our passions burning, and sometimes we need a pair of hands to hold us up until the wind dies down. So be compliant and affable and always greet someone with a smile.

Happy Chanukah!

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