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Chanukah — More than Candles, Gifts and Latkes #703

11/26/2021 05:14:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Chanukah: More than Candles, Gifts and Latkes

The great writer, Mark Twain, described his battle to quit smoking this way: “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I've done it thousands of times.”

How true it is for many of us, as we commit to change in our lives, but end up dropping the ball before reaching our goal.

We begin a work project with full head of steam — only to slow down before completing it.

We begin relationships with great hope and exhilaration, or commit to lose weight, exercise more, become more patient, but often find ourselves needing a “booster.”

This leads us on this Shabbat just prior to Chanukah, to a debate that divided two major houses of Jewish study 2,000 years ago.

“Do we light eight candles on the first night of Chanukah, and then reduce each day to one — or do we begin with one candle, and work our way up to eight?”

Rabbi Shammai argued that we should begin with eight candles corresponding to the number of miracle days to come. Rabbi Hillel contended that we should light one extra candle per day leading to a final night’s salute to the full eight day miracle of Chanukah. 

We all know how this debate ends, but how did our Sages reach that decision?

The answer the tie breaker is found in the Talmud.

It says: “The reason -- is that one elevates to a higher level in matters of sanctity, and one does not downgrade.”

In other words, life is a sulam — a ladder — upon which we are encouraged to climb gradually. Too often, we begin a major event or a life change with a big flash, but ultimately find ourselves “flaming out.”

Notes Rabbi Lazer Gurkow: “When you want to change a bad habit or a harmful addiction, when you want to break out of a rut or get out of a harmful relationship, there are always two tasks. One is to lessen the harmful behavior, the other is to grow the positive behavior.”

Change is never easy. When we commit to alter some aspect of our life, too often we begin with grandiose or unachievable “black or white” expressions like, “I promise to never” or “I promise to always.” But more often than not, true and lasting change can be found somewhere “in the greys.”

We gradually extinguish the darkness, and replace it with light.

Over the years, Chanukah has evolved. On one hand, stores, banks, institutions and media now recognize Chanukah as part of a more diverse winter observance. It is good to see Judaism recognized as part of the mainstream.

Yet, the first Chanukah involved a statement by the Maccabees against assimilation of the Jews by the Greeks. Are we in danger of moving in that direction?

Indeed, Chanukah is more than candles, gifts and latkes. During this eight-day festival, we are challenged to elevate our prayers and thoughts through action.

If we are tired of our jobs, according to the Rabbi Hillel theme, we add a little oil. We consider a new way of doing things, or take on a new challenge, or consider finding a new job.

If we are feeling complacent in our relationships, we commit perhaps to turning off our cell phones during dinner, or we decide to hug each other each morning, or remember to thank our loved ones for being in our lives.

Candle one, candle two, candle three…

More than anything, Chanukah is a holiday of growth.

And while there are many who, over the centuries, have agreed with Rabbi Shammai, that we begin Chanukah with a “big flash,” our tradition follows the philosophy of Rabbi Hillel, who inspires us to consider that through the ascending of light during this festive holiday, we can create a better tomorrow.

After eight nights of gradually growing, we are reminded that choosing light over darkness can become habit forming.

As we exit the observance of Thanksgiving — when we are encouraged to count our blessings — Chanukah reminds us to take that feeling and expand upon it.

For eight days — a bit more each night — we commit to replacing our winter pessimism with a change in attitude, increasing the light.

In our home, on the eighth night of Chanukah, we have a tradition of fully lighting every menorah in the house. We have about a dozen.

It’s an inspiring sight as more than 100 brilliant candles light up our dining room, spreading their combined energy outside our front window.

As I child, I recall shedding a tear when the last candle burned out and that final “poof” rose skyward. To this day, I remember the joy and hope I felt then.

As an adult, I am reminded — especially on that eighth night — of how beautiful this world can be. It is more than the hope of a dreamer. It is an attitude.

With so much darkness surrounding us right now, Chanukah reminds us that this world is still a wonderful place. We enjoy the blessings of family, friends, our community and this precious land.

Rabbi Hillel inspires us to consider, that offsetting darkness does not come through a single flash of light. Enlightenment comes through the choices that we make.

And that is what Chanukah is really about — as we commit ourselves to hope and to change — one candle, one light, one act, one mitzvah at a time.

Shabbat Shalom. Chanukah Sameach. Have a happy and meaningful Chanukah.


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Fri, September 29 2023 14 Tishrei 5784