There is something strange about Hanukkah.All of our other holidays celebrate a deliverance or development whose benefits persist—from the Exodus to the escape from Haman’s genocidal fantasies in Persia. Yet Hanukkah celebrates an achievement that was ephemeral—the rededication of a Temple that lasted two centuries and then was methodically destroyed by the Romans and lies in rubble until this very day. There are other problematic aspects of the festival—its very historicity and the flawed leadership of the Hasmoneans once they seized religious and political leadership and began their internal intrigues, to the detriment of Jewish independence and internal peace.
And yet we observe Hanukkah fully, with eight days of celebration and lighting the Hanukkiyah (Hanukkah Menorah). For all of our protests that Hanukkah has been artificially boosted by proximity to its Christian companion, there is something exceptionally pure and beautiful about this festival. It is appropriate that the Talmud asks, “What is its lasting meaning?” As with many aspects of Judaism, there is not only one answer. So instead, I have provided one of the myriad for each day.
1. The Sefat Emet says that the distinctive power of Hanukkah is that it was motivated not by a desire for physical freedom but for religious expression. It was the desire to perform the mitzvah of worship in the Temple that drove our ancestors to mortal battle, not the impulse for liberty, and for this reason the celebration is focused not on drinking and eating but on the purity of the Hanukkah lights.
2. Isaiah Horowitz, known as the Shel”ah, links the Hanukkah lights to the first light of creation. Just as the first light was hidden away for the final redemption, so too the lights of Hanukkah are holy, and one should not benefit from them. He continues that the Hasmoneans merited to unleash three lights: the light of Shekhinah, the light of Torah, and the light of the mitzvah.
3. Rebbe Nachman connects the light of Hanukkah to the second of the Priestly blessings. V’yichunekha has most of the letters of Hanukkah in it, and the Hanukkiyah reveals the “Panim” -- the eternal divine light -- and draws it into the neshamah, soul.
4. There are also numerous d’rashot, interpretations, about the placement of the Hanukkiyah —outside the door because the Hellenists were estranged from the inside of Jewish spirituality and pursued only the externals of beauty, etc. We place the light outside to draw them back in. Another interpretation is that the Mezuzah is placed on the right side of the door, symbolizing the written Torah, while the Hanukkiyah is placed on the left, symbolizing Oral Torah.
5. Samson Refael Hirsch picks up on the Talmud’s description of the mitzvah of Hanukkah being for a person and his or her home—that the core of Jewish identity is in the home and not just the synagogue where we sing Hallel (every day of Hanukkah). Without the light of Jewish identity at home, there is no point to the public celebration.
6. Zer Zahav says that the Hanukkiyah is placed on the left (side of the door as you enter) because that is the side of the heart, and the point is to circumcise the heart—which is also indicated by the eight days of work and Hanukkah.
7. The Sefat Emet again says that on the start of Tevet in the midst of Hanukkah there are 36 Hanukkah candles for the 36 days from 25 Kislev through the end of Tevet, which is a time of darkness and hiddenness. He associates the word Tevet with “Hatavat Hanerot”--the improvement by light and believes that this mitzvah is a refuah—a healing from the darkest days.
8. Finally, our very own contemporary Conservative Rabbi Isaac Klein says that today Hanukkah symbolizes the struggle of “the few against the many, the weak against the strong,” the eternal battle of the Jewish people for its faith and its existence. To the world it proclaims the eternal message of the prophet Zechariah: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit.”
And with this I’ll conclude—the core task for us is also hadlakat hanerot. It does not matter where you are, the task that you are training for is to light a fire, to help banish darkness, hatred and oppression and to bring purpose, meaning and joy to the people whom you are privileged to encounter.
I consider it a great privilege and joy to work with you, and I wish you and those whom you love a Happy Hanukkah.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah!
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham