When I look at what I teach today about Chanukah, I see that my love of the holiday has evolved beyond embossed chocolate coins and spinning dreidels. Chanukah is my favorite holiday but it has nothing to do with presents and has everything to do with faith, hope, and finding community.
I was fortunate to live in Israel during my first year of rabbinical school. Celebrating Chanukah in Jerusalem was truly, in every sense of the word, an enlightening experience. Never before had I seen thousands of Chanukah menorahs in glass boxes perched on stools, stoops, and windowsills. It was so beautiful. Pride washed over me as every night I witnessed the many beautiful lights, illuminating the ancient city as if the stars of heaven had sent messengers of light. It was so beautiful. The pride I experienced seeing so many speckles of Jewish light made me feel invincible. Seeing outside the light that is normally protected inside gave me a sense of connection and belonging that seemed new and old at the same time.
We are instructed to “lfarsem et haNess” to use light to boldly share and promote the miracle. But what does the miracle have to do with us thousands of years after the rededication of the Temple?
I learned in Jerusalem, and continue to teach, that the miracle is not that the oil lasted. The miracle is the Jews didn’t lose hope when it would have been so easy to do so. We had faith that the impossible is possible.
Imagine our ancestors sitting in the restored Temple. They know that the light symbolizes the presence of God. They’re watching the flames and the only thing left to do is have hope and faith. They hope with every fiber of their being that the oil will last and God’s presence will remain. When the unimaginable becomes a reality that is the moment of gratitude, relief, and awe. They realize they are not the only ones watching, hoping, and waiting. Together in the room and throughout the community collectively, they experienced this moment of faith together. The war and devastation didn’t destroy our community. Instead, our collective hope, faith, and experiences shared as a community is a miracle. We didn’t give up.
Hillel and Shammai are among the famous pairs of rabbis whose conversations (read: arguments) fill the many volumes known as the Talmud. Rituals and celebrations deliberated in this ancient text continue to shape Jewish life today. Hillel steps out of the Talmud and joins us every time we melt the base of the drippy colorful candles and load from the right and light from the left.
Here are the Cliff notes of their conversation:
Shammai exclaims that just like the oil in the restored Temple started as a full jar and obviously burned, was depleted and diminished day after day, so too should we start with 9 candles on the first night and decrease with each passing day.
No! says Hillel. The opposite ought to be the custom. Clearly, the point of the holiday is to increase and extend our hope. We should burn bright with gratitude and increase our fervor, our dedication as each day passes.
Hillel's teaching guides us to understand the idea of building up to a blinding breathtaking brightness that diminishes the darkness. We should begin with a modest and small light and build and build, lighting the newest candle each night. This is the way to bring meaning to the holiday. Our faith, represented by the light, increased with each day.
How wonderful it is this year that as our Thanksgiving leftovers became a side dish for latkes, we have the chance to merge our giving of thanks with our giving of hope. Now is the perfect time for each of us to take light and hope and share it with others. It’s not too late! We welcome you to join us tonight in person either at our Glazer or University campus or online. Join us so together we can diminish the darkness by sharing our light.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Chanukah Sameach,
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