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Friday, December 24, 2010


A Dvar Torah For Parshat Mikketz and Shabbat Hanukkah 5771.

We all know that our common practice is to light one candle on the first night of Hanukkah (not counting the helper candle, of course) and to add one more candle each night until the final night, when we light eight candles. In the early part of the common era, there were actually two conflicting candle lighting practices. The Talmud tells us that the School of Shammai would begin Hanukkah by lighting eight candles, then reduce the number of candles lit each night, so that by night eight only one candle would be lit. Shammai’s intellectual rival, the school of Hillel, would begin Hanukkah by lighting one candle, then increase the number of candles lit each night, so that by night eight, eight candles would be lit. Shammai’s reasoning was that, since Hanukkah was originally an imitation of Sukkot –a holiday that the Maccabees could not celebrate during their battles with the Greek army- we imitate the practices of Sukkot in our candle lighting. On Sukkot in the ancient temple, the number of sacrificial offerings burned on the altar decreased each day of the holiday, until the Shmini Atzeret holiday on the eighth day, when only one offering would be burned. So too on Hanukkah, the School of Shammai would offer fewer and fewer candles, as it were, on the imitative altar known as the Hanukkiyah. Hillel’s reasoning was that, since the true Hanukkah miracle involved the small jug of oil being sufficient for the people to light the Menorah for eight days, we imitate them by lighting an increasing number of candles each night, until we light eight. However, a careful look at the words used in the Talmud to describe Hillel’s reasoning reveals something interesting: The Hillelites never say explicitly that we increase the number of candles for the reason just mentioned. The Talmud cryptically explains that they practiced this way because we are supposed to increase the presence of holiness in our lives, not decrease it. What the Talmud seems to be getting at here is what we all know intuitively. As a winter holiday, Hanukkah is all about increasing God’s holy presence in our lives by actively increasing the light in a dark, winter world. Hanukkah may have connections to Sukkot, but what light starved people truly crave as we come together during the holiday or on any night, is more light, which brings more joy and more security.

The great 18th century Hasidic master, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, explains this basic human quest for more light in his extended essays on Hanukkah, which I am privileged to be studying with our fellow congregant, Anschel Weiss. Levi Yitzchak views the disagreement between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai as two unique spiritual postures. He asks us to imagine a person in the desert who is starving for food and water. When that person finds out that food and water are on their way, his gratitude and sense of relief continue to increase because he can anticipate getting closer to nourishment, even though he is still intensely hungry and thirsty. When he finally eats, he initially thanks God for what he now has, but his sense of gratitude begins to wear off as he eats and drinks more and more. Comparing this to the Schools of Hillel and Shammai, Levi Yitzchak explains that Hillel’s practice reflects how they thought the Jews of ancient times must have felt each night of that first Hanukkah. Once they were out of harm’s way, each night they lit the Menorah in the Temple with that one small jug of oil, they became hungrier and thirstier –as it were- for more opportunities to show gratitude to God. Their increasing joy at the possibilities of restoring light to their own dark world only made them increase their thanks to God: thus, Hillel’s practice. Shammai’s practice, however, reflects a very different assumption about the people’s feelings during that first Hanukkah. Once they were out of harm’s way, each night they lit the Menorah in the Temple, the initial thrill of God’s redemption began to wear off as they moved further and further from the original miraculous experience of defeating the Greek occupiers. Like a community slogging through the rituals of Sukkot day after day, after having already observed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Maccabean Jews’ spiritual enthusiasm grew dim: thus, Shammai’s practice.

We record and study both opinions, Hillel and Shammai, but we only observe the opinion of the School of Hillel. We recognize, as does Levi Yitzchak, that our experiences of God and of life are always most powerful at the moment that they happen, and we are always most appreciative of them then. But time, forgetfulness, and the difficulties of life distract us, so that our exhilaration starts to diminish and grow dim. It is human nature to want to practice like the House of Shammai, and we need to accept this about ourselves. However, the lighting of our Hanukkah lights in accordance with the House of Hillel is a symbolic challenge to us to resist that impulse to darken the world further by growing dark ourselves. By lighting more lights each night of Hanukkah, we indicate our steadfast refusal to be swallowed up by that despair that daily accompanies the dark little indignities of life in a world that is less than just, less than perfect, and seemingly so far away from the miracles that life has to offer. By lighting more lights each night of Hanukkah, we shed more light on the ordinary that surrounds us, so that we can see the extraordinary hiding in its shadows.

Shabbat shalom and Happy Hanukkah.

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