Chanukah, Oh Chanukah! Come light the Menorah.
The ever so familiar holiday melody virtually every Jew knows and sings as they gather around to light with friends and family. Then the second night comes. Also nice. Maybe you’re at a party. Maybe the cousins aren’t there. The gifts aren’t as spectacular. Third night, left overs and third string presents if you are still getting stuff.
It’s no surprise for me to say that Eight Crazy Nights get increasingly sane and dull by the end of it. Can anyone be blamed? It’s just how human nature is. But this is a Jewish holiday, and in Judaism, it’s all about tapping into the spiritual to soar above human nature. By letting Chanukah putter out, we are missing a tremendous opportunity.
Holiday Fights Happened Back Then Too
There is only one mandated mitzvah to do on Chanukah, lighting the candles. How do you do that exactly? Well, it’s Judaism so there’s going to be a fight about it.
Technically speaking (this is all in the Talmud – Tractate Shabbos) all you have to do is light one candle each night. That’s it. There’s a high level in which all family members each light their own menorah. And for an even higher level, one lights according to which night of Chanukah it is.
Even this approach has an argument between none other than the house of the students of Rabbi Shammai (aka Beis Shammai) and the house of the students of Rabbi Hillel (aka Beis Hillel). You’ve probably heard the name Hillel before. The rulings of Hillel’s teachings tend to be more chessed (loving kindness – forgiveness) inspired, while Rabbi Shammai’s teachings argued a more strict, stringent, and din (judgement) sort of rulings. Generally, we have adopted more of Hillel’s rulings, but Shammai by no means should be disregarded.
When it comes to the menorah, Beis Hillel says we should light one light (not including the shemash) and increase one candle per night, as is the custom you’re probably familiar with. Beis Shammai says the opposite. Eight the first night, seven the second night, and so on down till one.
Maybe it is just because of the customs we all grew up with, but something seems really sad about Beis Shammai’s way of lighting. I don’t want to have one candle at the end. I want to save the best for last! I want to build until I see all eight glorious candles burning brightly together. I don’t think anyone wants their menorah puttering out with one candle at the end.
But then why does our spirit for the holiday seem to match Beis Shammai’s approach? As I said in my opening, we start the holiday big in spirit and let it dwindle. By day eight, did you even remember to light? Beis Hillel felt that we should increase in lights because we are increasing our holiness. So why doesn’t our behavior match our aspiration? Chanukah should be a swelling of spirituality, but it isn’t.
Celebrations vs Investments
Chanukah is certainly a time deserving of celebration. But we can only party so much before emotions wear thin and the demands of life pull us out of the spirit. However, when we remember that every Jewish holiday has its own special energy to tap into, a spiritual opportunity only available at that time, then the holiday can become less about celebration and more about seizing that opportunity. At that point, the observance becomes a journey.
What is the spiritual opportunity of Chanukah? To answer that question (for any holiday really) it helps to look into the added prayers inserted the daily service of the Shemonah Esrei (standing prayer).
In the days of Matityahu, the son of Yochanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, when the wicked Hellenic government rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will. But You, in Your abounding mercies, stood by them in the time of their distress. You waged their battles, defended their rights, and avenged the wrong done to them. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah. You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your world, and effected a great deliverance and redemption for Your people Israel to this very day. Then Your children entered the shrine of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your Sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courtyards, and instituted these eight days of Chanukah to give thanks and praise to Your great Name.
Notice the miracles listed aren’t about oil lasting for eight days. It doesn’t mention that we defeated the Greeks either. The specifics are rather vague. The prayer simply recounts that God took the advantaged and put them into the hands of the disadvantaged. Against all odds and expectations, impossible victories were achieved. Yes these victories applied to the Greeks, but I believe it’s clear that the victories can be applied to those struggles of any year. And the phrase “to this very day” seems to support that.
We’re in the darkest, coldest time of year. It’s a little harder to get out of bed and that diet we pledged at Rosh Hashanah? Ha! Pass the sufganiyot. The season we’re in bombards us with physical pleasures and temptations of the material non stop. If we focus on the physical, we’ll get bored of our presents pretty quickly, the oily foods we’ll start to get sick of, and our excitement for the holiday will certainly diminish. But if we focus on what we really want, things like growth, connection, achievement, and learning wisdom, then the awe of the light swells as we are reminded that when the odds are stacked against us, we can not just prevail, but reach an even higher level than before. That’s the magic of Chanukah.
Chanukah isn’t over yet. Finish strong.