This Chanukah, let’s challenge ourselves to infuse each day with deeper intentionality, turning latkes into teachable moments, proudly spreading our light and striving to be givers.

The mail arrives just as my kids get home from school, and they’ve already eyed the magazine they’ve been waiting for: The Amazon Gift Guide. Each child runs to the crafts drawer to find their own color marker, armed and ready to circle every item they want for Chanukah. Within 45 minutes, the magazine is returned to me, edited and primed for me to buy (at least) one of everything.

Happy Chanukah, Amazon. Enjoy my paycheck.

Erin Stiebel
Erin Stiebel

Chanukah is such a special holiday. The energy, the excitement, the magic, the stories — it’s something everyone looks forward to, and not only because of the presents. With a little intentionality, we can transform Chanukah from a holiday of receiving gifts to a holiday we learn to receive as a gift itself.

How, you ask?

It all starts with the latkes.

Yes, those perfectly delicious fried potato pancakes that fill our tables and our bellies during the holiday season. This tasty tradition presents us with the opportunity for a teachable moment for all who have gathered around our table. As we savor each oily bite, we are reminded of the Holy Temple, defiled by the Greeks, and the lone pitcher of pure oil that remained untouched. That little container of oil should have lit the menorah for just one day, yet miraculously the menorah remained lit for eight days!

As our hungry guests go back for seconds, we can frame the experience for them: just as the miracle of the oil gave hope to Jewish people, so, too, the possibility for miracles today should inspire hope in all of us. So, whether it’s your great-grandmother’s recipe or the frozen ones from Trader Joe’s that are better than we care to admit, bring out those latkes, spin your dreidels, and let the oil spark hope and frame our miraculous shared narrative.

The latkes, though, are not enough.

Without getting entangled in a Daylight Savings Time discussion, Chanukah always falls when the days are shortest, and the darkness is all-encompassing. In fact, the month Kislev, in which Chanukah falls, can be understood as “Kis Lo,” “hidden to him,” implying that this is a month where things are hidden, due in large part, to the darkness. Yet, it’s at this very moment of seasonal darkness that we are given Chanukah, the holiday defined by light.

We begin Chanukah with one little candle, placed in our window for all to see, and proceed to add an additional flame each night. We watch as day after day, our small light increases until our menorahs reach capacity, with eight beautiful flames flickering in our window.

The placement of the menorah is a critical piece of the mitzvah called Pirsumai Nisah, publicizing the miracle, for while we benefit from the light growing daily within our homes, we, as Jews, always make sure to share our unique light with others, illuminating the darkness as our flames flicker in the window for all to see. For it is not just because of my menorah or your menorah, rather it is the collective participation of the Jewish nation that allows us to be a light unto the world.

But what about the spiritual darkness?

We live in a very self-centered world: iPhone, iPad, iMessage. “I” am is at the center of everything we do. It is so easy to slip into this mindset over Chanukah, too: my wish list, my presents, my party … This focus on “my needs” is a reflection of the spiritual darkness in the world, which prevents me from seeing those around me.

In our home, we wanted to try to reframe the narrative. Each night, after lighting the menorah and before we began that night’s activities, we gave each of our five children $1 to put in the tzedakah box. By the eighth night of Chanukah, we had accumulated $40 in charity. We gathered to discuss how our tzedakah would help the community and where we should make our donation.

One year, they used the money to buy gifts for those less fortunate, while another year, they decided to hand-deliver the $40 to their organization of choice, their school. As parents, we tried to plant seeds for our children so that the concept of giving went hand-in-hand with receiving.

This past summer, we saw those seeds take root. Our 6-year-old son opened his first business, Solly’s Garbage Can Collection Service, where he brings our neighbors’ garbage cans from the curb to their garage. At 50 cents a can, his business has become quite lucrative! Each week, he proudly gathers his earnings and separates a 10th of his total to give to charity. It’s not easy to give up your hard-earned money, but just like on Chanukah when he saw himself as a giver, for him, giving is just what you do when you find yourself in a position of receiving. Getting presents is something we all look forward to, and giving should be, too.

This Chanukah, let’s challenge ourselves to infuse each day with deeper intentionality, turning latkes into teachable moments, proudly spreading our light and striving to be givers. If we successfully navigate the darkness and ignite the spark within ourselves, imagine how brightly our collective light will shine.

Erin Stiebel, senior educator for Partners Detroit and the director of NCSY GIVE, and her husband, David, live in Southfield and are the proud parents of the greatest kids in the world.

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