As the earliest of Hanukkahs (or Thanksgivikkah or Thankshanukkah) nears its end tomorrow night, the Hanukkah menorah is filling up with lighted candles. But it turns out there are two ways you can go with a menorah. Most (virtually all) Jewish families light one candle each night until the entire menorah is ablaze, but there is another method that dates back to the first century — going in reverse. Light them all on the first night, then light one less candle each night for the eight-day holiday.

Either come in or go out with a blaze of glory.

The method you choose reveals your philosophical point of view. The accepted method is based on increase, the less popular one on decrease. Rabbis long ago determined that holiness should always increase, never decrease.

But there’s another way of looking at this: Is the end of a good thing fullness or emptiness? 

Life, for instance. Does it end in fullness or emptiness?

Which is reminiscent of the dreaded trick question: Is the glass half empty or half full? Your answer allegedly determines whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist. Is there anyone, knowing full well the judgment hanging over one’s head like a guillotine, who would answer that question, “Half empty”?

Unlikely. We’re all conditioned to respond “half full” because no one wants to be pegged a pessimist, except the occasional curmudgeon. Most people prefer to think of themselves as optimists — unless you consider optimists pollyannish wishful thinkers, doomed to disappointment, in which case you refuse to answer the question at all.

Whichever answer you give, you’re only half right. The correct answer, which should be obvious to any objective observer, is that the glass is half empty and half full. 

The problem, in other words, is not the words “empty” or “full” but the word “or.”

And that’s a problem. Our culture is stuck in the Either/Or fallacy. It has to be one or the other. Either the free market or government, conservative or progressive, capitalism or socialism, Vatican I Catholicism or Vatican II Catholicism, Cubs or White Sox, pro-life or pro-choice, Republican or Democrat, extremist or moderate, Israelis or Palestinians, hawks or doves, vegetarians or carnivores, hybrids or SUVs, my way or the highway.

Optimist or pessimist.

A polarized, deeply divided society is an either/or society. Pick your label. If you don’t, we’ll apply it.

As Dorothy Parker famously said, “There are only two kinds of people: those who divide people into two kinds and those who don’t.”

We are not a both/and culture. Not yet anyway. Hopefully, we’re moving in that direction, but at the moment we just can’t see that the glass is half empty and half full, so we’re always half wrong. Learning to see the glass half empty and half full prevents both smug complacency and cynical despair.

But the Hanukkah menorah raises other questions — about emptiness and fullness. There’s no halfway, except when you’re halfway through the holiday, at which point you have emptiness and fullness. 

The origin of the holiday itself is about emptiness and fullness. Only one day’s supply of oil remained for the lamps when the Jews regained their temple back in the days of the Maccabees, but the lamps stayed lit, miraculously, for eight days. 

Miracles are where emptiness meets fullness.

Jewish holidays come in eight-day durations, which is a long time to celebrate, but that’s nothing compared to the Christianized bacchanalia known as Christmas. It may be a single holiday, but it consumes us (so to speak) for a full month — or more, judging by the very premature broadcast of Christmas tunes on the radio.

How’s your Christmas spirit? Do you start the month of December full and end it empty or start empty and end it full? Or do you start empty and end empty and reach fullness sometime between — Christmas Day, for instance? Some diehards still observe Twelfth Night, which means you can go straight from Black Friday to the Epiphany (Jan. 6) if you have the endurance, and the pocketbook.

But what about a life? When we die, do we experience a void or a transcendental fullness? 

What about just before you die? Is the end of life fullness or emptiness?

Or both.

If you were to light a menorah (a nice ecumenical gesture for those who aren’t Jewish), would you start with all the candles lit and reduce that number by one each night or would you build each night toward a fully-lit menorah? Does one approach make you an optimist and the other a pessimist?

Or is there something else at work here — maybe a respect for endings that acknowledges decline as a natural part of life. Which is a more accurate parallel to life itself? Which produces the happier ending? 

Do we worship the light and despise the darkness or do we celebrate both? Do we embrace a life that is alternately full and empty, maybe even simultaneously full and empty?

Is our existence a life or death situation or is it a life and death proposition?

Be careful how you answer. It says something about you.

The glass is half empty and half full.

Take another look.

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