This is one of the best Chanukah gifts you can give your children. And it’s free!
The first Chanukah after I was married, we had just returned to Eretz Yisrael from visiting family in the States and I was in a very early stage of pregnancy. Couple that with the long, dark nights that came too fast and you have a homesick, nauseous, miserable woman. If you know anything about associations—that our emotions are deeply intertwined with our experiences, which you certainly do, you know that it will take many non-nauseous, happy Chanukahs in my life before I don’t feel a pit in my stomach when my husband sings his version of the Chanukah zemiros.
That’s what associations do. Listen to a song you first heard in childhood, and, no matter how many decades have passed since the CD (or cassette!) came onto the market, there will still be that undercurrent of emotion that comes up for you. It’s incredible how deeply ingrained in our nefesh every experience becomes. The heavier the emotions we felt while the experience took place, the more likely we are to either love or loathe not only the memories of it, but also the things we heard, smelled, saw, or ate during that time.
Without even being consciously aware of it, we naturally gravitate toward things that we associate with positive feelings and stay away from those that are associated with negative feelings. And so, while one woman might love walking into her daughter’s school, to inhale the smell of the freshly waxed floors—because to her, subconsciously, school was a place where she felt loved, successful, or content, as a child—another woman may do anything to avoid entering the building, without even being consciously aware of why this is so—that in her inner world, no matter how successful she is today, she feels like the taunted or timid or failing or lonely little girl.
This phenomenon plays out not only in regards to visiting certain places. It helps form our seemingly rational perception of entire communities, our taste for certain foods, our fashion style, and even our lifestyle choices.
Often, when an individual appears to be disenchanted with Yiddishkeit, for example, it is actually the unpleasant emotions they’ve associated with it that are at the core of their upset. “Why would she throw out the baby with the bathwater?” a pained parent might ask. But when it comes to emotions, the baby is the bathwater. The two become subconsciously enmeshed, one and the same.
If all my years I felt tension on Shabbos, Shabbos equals tension. If all my life the mitzvah of tznius left me feeling not good about myself, I will feel this way about tznius even when I rationally understand that this is not the truth. (Of course, this is not an excuse for transgressing any commandment. We are obligated to perform the mitzvos regardless of how we feel about them.) For such a child (now-teenager or adult), cultivating positive associations with Shabbos, tznius, or any other mitzvah, is a process that involves undoing the wrong in order to create something new.
Recently, my friend, who teaches in a local seminary, was told to give a class on the value of Torah learning and the wife’s role in encouraging and supporting her husband in doing so. “Help!” She said to me. “I don’t feel like saying all these lofty words that we’re used to hearing on the topic.” In her desire to deliver a genuine message, she wanted to dig deeper and see why it was that she herself had chosen such a life. It turned out, as is true in my own case as well, that a big part of why we chose this lifestyle was because it felt good to us. At twenty, I had formed an association between having a “learning husband” and positive feelings. And so, this became one of the top criteria on my mental list.
(In fact, when I discussed this subject with Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi for an article I prepared for Agudas Yisrael’s Nshei HaSiyum Magazine, her words echoed this sentiment. “It’s a new world today,” she told me. “I can’t get up and gush about sacrificing and the great reward we get in the World to Come. The girls today want to feel good about what they’re doing.”)
While one woman may associate having a lawyer or doctor husband with positive feelings, my friend’s and my associations took us in another direction (all Divinely orchestrated so we would marry our bashert). In other words, while the concept of rational ideals certainly exists, a large part of the choices we make are deeply rooted in our associations.
That I formed such strong associations with my husband’s Chanukah tunes when I was already a married adult gives us a glimpse as to the magnitude of the associations children form in childhood. In a subtle, subconscious way, every song they hear, every food they eat, everything they experience during Chanukah—and every Yom Tov, every Shabbos, and every day—becomes associated to the way they feel about and during that time. From a very young age, if on Chanukah the home is a happy, calm place; if there is peace and love between their parents; if kind words are exchanged between the people around them; if they are treated with respect and love, the joy of Chanukah lights up their hearts. They become forever in love with the Yom Tov. And without even being conscious of it, every donut, every latke, makes them feel good. The sight of a dreidel is enough to make them happy.
Is there a better Chanukah gift for our children than that? Of course, they will certainly appreciate nice gifts and fun gadgets. But it’s our conscious effort to generate positive emotions in the home that will create positive associations for them, hopefully for the rest of their lives. Whether it’s letting go at a moment that could easily escalate into one of friction in our marriage or parenting, whether it’s singing a happy tune and dancing around the table instead of checking our messages one more time, whether it’s getting down on the floor to play another game of dreidel, or putting up another pot of their favorite food, it’s the memories we create for them today that will become ingrained in their hearts for years to come.
This is the ultimate gift that keeps giving: every time our children will think or hear “Chanukah,” they will feel another rush of good feelings in their heart.