Last weekend, my 2-year old daughter, Hannah, lost one of her shoes. These were her favorite pair of shoes, and she refused to wear any others. My husband and I searched every nook and cranny of our house. We scoured our cars. We checked her stroller. We looked in the garage, in case they had fallen out of the stroller. We searched everywhere until finally, we stopped searching and started playing outside with the kids.
An hour later, I opened one of Hannah’s drawers to grab a sweater, and there was the shoe, right on top of the clothes. This incident reminded me of a story by Rabbi Levi Isaac ben Meir of Berdichev, who lived in 18th century Galicia. The story is retold in Noah Ben Shea’s “The Word” (Villard, 1995).
A man was running down the street looking only straight ahead.
The rabbi in the community saw the man and asked him: “Why are you in such a rush?”
“I’m trying to make a living,” said the man, hesitant to even slow down to answer the question.
“Do you think,” asked the rabbi, “that it is possible that the living you are trying to make is not ahead of you but behind you and all that is required of you is to stand still?”
The Talmud echoes the sentiment of this story. The rabbis teach that, “One who humbles oneself, the Holy One raises up, and one who exalts himself, the Holy One humbles. From one who runs after greatness, greatness flees. But one who runs away from greatness, greatness follows. One who forces time is forced back by time. One who yields to time finds time standing by his side.”
This paradox is echoed in the story of Joseph which is read in the Torah portions during Hanukkah. As a teenager, Joseph recounted to his brothers dreams of his family bowing down to him. His youthful arrogance soon landed him alone in prison. While incarcerated, Joseph performs an act of kindness by interpreting the dream of a fellow inmate, the cupbearer, who when released promptly forgets Joseph.
During two long years in prison, Joseph probably thought he was stuck there for good. Yet, in the continuation of the story (read in this week’s parsha called Miketz), Pharaoh has a puzzling dream, and the cupbearer finally remembers Joseph. This story offers hope that redemption can come just when least expected, which is precisely the message of Hannukah.
The holiday of Hanukkah commemorates the miracle of oil in the ancient Temple that was only enough for one day but lasted for eight. The miracle was not that more oil appeared, but rather that the existing oil lasted longer than people thought it would. In essence, the holiday celebrates how things can turn out better than expected.
We often worry about worse-case scenarios, but forget that things can also work out even better than we imagined. In economic crisis, our natural response is to rush with greater urgency to make a living — like the man in the story — never pausing for even a moment to reflect. In our frantic search, we can easily lose hope and perspective.
In these uncertain times, the holiday of Hannukah reminds us to take heart and yield to time. Because you never know: Miracles can happen when you least expect. You may actually find what you’ve lost, just as soon as you stop looking for it.
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.