I would like to study with you several talmudic and halachic statements and teachings that deal superficially with Jewish legal details of lighting the Chanukah lights, and attempt to find within these texts the deeper meaning that is relevant to our contemporary celebration of the special Yom Tov of Chanukah.
The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat teaches: “It is a mitzvah to place the Chanukah candles outside the door to one’s home, but in times of danger, it is sufficient to place the candles on one’s table (inside).” Simply stated, we are instructed as to the proper place for the menorah to rest. However, there is more.
One of the basic fundamentals of Judaism is that Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh. A Jew does not live isolated from the rest of the world, nor can he be concerned merely with his own existence and survival. Jews must reach out and give of themselves to their fellow Jews. We have always been taught to bring our light to those who are still in the dark; to enlighten those who have not as yet had the opportunity and privilege to be on the inside. But in times of danger, when there is a threat from the outside, we should keep the lights on our own table, surrounded securely by children and family who are willing to share in the light of Judaism.
In the days of old, we learn from the Talmud’s report, the candles were placed on the outside, whereas today the menorah is placed inside of our homes. Why the change in practice? In previous generations our enemies came from outside. So by kindling the menorah and placing it on the outside, we declared in demonstrative fashion our victory against the outside forces and external interference with our right to exist and survive as a people. Today, on the other hand, the forces of assimilation, intermarriage, ignorance and secularization arrogantly parade inside our very homes and institutions. Against these internal threats we demonstrate our pride as authentic Jews and assert our belief in the perpetuity of the Jewish people by lighting the menorah in our homes around our own tables.
Today’s priority is not merely to teach and share with outsiders, but to maintain and reinforce the stability of our greatest source of strength – the Jewish home.
According to Halacha, a Jew who does not have sufficient funds to buy candles for Chanukah or wine to observe the mitzvah of the four cups of wine on Pesach, must go out and beg, “stretch out his hand,” or collect charity in order to fulfill these special mitzvot. Why were such stipulations made specifically in regard to these two mitzvah observances? Because with regard to other mitzvot, if one has proper and positive intentions, but is unable to actually observe the mitzvah because of circumstances beyond one’s control, the good and positive intentions suffice. In regard to the two mitzvot that call for pirsumei nisa, the need to publicly display and declare Jewish pride and affirm Jewish identity, action alone will do. Proper observance of Chanukah calls for commitment to greater action, to more intensive learning, to more generous giving, to more doing and less preaching.
There is an old custom that after reciting the blessing on the Chanukah candles we also recite the verse of Vihi Noam – “May the pleasant grace of the Lord our God be upon us: and the work of our hands confirm unto us…” Why add these words after the brachot? The celebrations of all other festivals are a result of the miracles and wonders brought about through the grace and mercy of God alone. Chanukah on the other hand, is of course a result of God’s kindness, bit it is coupled with the active involvement and bravery of the Hasmoneans. Fighting assimilation, secularization, and ignorance is a struggle that can never be left to God alone. It is a fight that calls for “the work of our hands.” When we succeed, as we did on Chanukah, we not only praise God with brachot, but we also extol “the work of our hands.”
The Talmud further teaches us that the proper time for the kindling of the Chanukah lights is “when the sun begins to set.” It is precisely when the sun sets, and darkness, fear, and trembling set in, that candles need to be lit. When the sun sets, it appears that eternal darkness will envelop us and never again will we enjoy the rays of light. How often in contemporary times do the statistics of assimilation, inter marriage and conversion frighten us. Reports of a decreasing Jewish population depress us and Jewish ignorance overwhelms us. It is precisely because of such awesome and dark realities that more and more candles need to be lit. True, the approach of Beit Shamai, who advised that we begin with a big flame of eight candles so that we may burn through the contemporary scene of decay and Hellenism, may not be practical or advisable. We, however, follow Beit Hillel, and begin with just one, small candle, with one single spark. From the one little spark, we work our way up, slowly and surely, to bigger and stronger lights – mosif veholech.
Among the laws of Chanukah, we also find that, “wicks and oils which may not be used on the Shabbat, may be used for Chanukah.” Reb Mendel of Kotzl explains that neshomot (souls) (ner Hashem nishmat adam) – that may not even be awakened or moved by Shabbat, may be motivated by the observance of Chanukah. For even during Hasmonean days, when many Jews were alienated and removed from the mainstream of Judaism, they were, nevertheless, moved to join the struggle for Jewish independence, sovereignty and pride.
One more law regarding the lighting of the Chanukah menorah reveals the true nature of the Chanukah observance. If a Jew is unable to light or participate in the lighting of the menorah, and then merely sees someone else’s menorah, he may recite the two blessings recited when kindling the lights: Sh’easa nisim l’avoteinu, (Who did miracles for our forefathers), and Shehecheyanu, (the blessing of gratitude to God for allowing us to live and enjoy this new event, another holiday).
It is easy to understand why one may recite the first blessing upon seeing the Chanukah lights; the flames are our tangible means of publicizing the occurrence of the miracle. But why must one also see the flames in order to recite Shehecheyanu? The fact that another Chanukah is here, and we are alive and well to usher it in, should be sufficient reason to give thanks and recognition to God!
The S’fas Emes explains, however, that merely being alive on the twenty-fifth of Kislev is not enough. One must see the flames and remember and understand what they represent. As Jews we must at least see the Chanukah lights – if physically lighting them is an impossibility – and acknowledge that we are grateful for the triumph of Torah’s light over Greece’s darkness, for Hasmonean commitment over Hellenistic compromise and for spiritual growth over physical gratification.
Think of how simple and obvious the S’fas Emes’ response is. Chanukah is celebrated because of the purification of a small can of oil; the triumph of light over darkness. Never mind that Israel did not yet enjoy full independence or political and military supremacy. Even after independence was attained, our festival remained a commemoration of the miracle of lights, not of political supremacy. Of course, what else should concern the Jewish people if not the light of Torah, mitzvot, commitments, authentic Jewish education, vibrant and dynamic Jewish homes, synagogues and schools?
The root of the word Chanukah in Hebrew (dedication) not only reflects our commemoration of the rededication of the Temple of Old. The word equally emphasizes chinukh (education). Chanukah in modern times can bring the very same enthusiasm and excitement it did for the Hasmoneans in Temple days. Every Jewish family can “repurify” its own sanctuary or home by providing its members a Jewish education. Only children who learn primary Jewish sources, who study Jewish history, tradition and heritage and who appreciate their ancestors and identify with their language and customs, can be expected to be dedicated-even if they merely see the menorah! Jewish education can and should be exciting, contagious and spread like fire.
The Kedushat Levi comments on the Talmud’s statement regarding the law of Chanukah, hadlakah osah mitzvah (the actual lighting of the fire is the essence of the mitzvah), namely, the ultimate goal of the mitzvah is to create fire, excitement, enthusiasm and yearning to create light.
A young and zealous Chasid was disturbed by the prevalence of overpowering darkness in the world. Intent on driving out the forces of evil, he sought the advice of his rabbi. At first, the rabbi suggested that he take a broom and try an experiment in a nearby cellar by sweeping together the darkness, which filled the room. The bewildered disciple undertook the curious task, but was unsuccessful. The rabbi then suggested that he take a stick and beat vigorously at the darkness to drive it out. When this too failed, the rabbi said, “My son, one can readily overwhelm the challenge of darkness by simply lighting a candle.” The disciple and his fellow Chasidim descended to the cellar, where each kindled a candle. And behold, the darkness vanished!
It is time that we rededicate ourselves to the real purpose of Chanukah. The lights of Chanukah were meant to banish our own darkness. We must emerge from the shadows and illuminate our world. This year, do your share to let the light in.