Tradition Today: Celebrating the light

Tradition Today Celebra

hanukkah candles good pic 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
hanukkah candles good pic 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Everybody loves Hanukka. That is one of the beautiful things about it. It unites us - haredim, religious, secular - rather than dividing us. It is one holiday that we can all enjoy and share. It is also an easy holiday in the sense that it does not require much of us. There is no succa to build, no Seder to prepare, no long services to sit through. The main mitzva is one that can be performed easily and inexpensively. All one has to do is light a candle. As a matter of fact the original teaching is that the requirement is merely for "one light for a man and his household" (Shabbat 21b). The text then continues, "Those who are zealous light one for each person and the extremely zealous light eight on the first eve and reduce the number thereafter, according to the School of Shammai, while the School of Hillel teaches that they light one the first night and progressively increase them." The kindling of lights each night creates a beautiful atmosphere in which the physical presence of light versus darkness is a perfect match for the spiritual message of the holiday. Hanukka commemorates the struggle for religious freedom, perhaps the first such event in human history. True, it also commemorates political freedom and independence, but the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids was brought about by the fact that these Syrian Greeks forced observant Jews to abandon their religion and violate the Torah, the religious constitution of the Jewish people. This is stated explicitly in the Hanukka prayer Al Hanissim, "They demanded that they abandon Your Torah and violate Your mitzvot." For the first - but unfortunately not the last - time, Jews were martyred because they attempted to observe the mitzvot of Judaism. Hellenism was not being offered as a choice, but as a coercive substitute for Judaism. None of the previous battles against Jews or Israelites had been on a religious basis. The Babylonians, for example, made no attempt to eradicate the religion of Israel. They conquered the land of the state of Judea and carried the people into exile but made no attempt to force them to become idolaters and abandon their own beliefs. The right of every people to determine its own way of life, its own culture and its own religious practices is fundamental to human liberty, and Hanukka celebrates that right. The sages, in their emphasis on the story of the relighting of the menora and the legend of the oil (Shabbat 21b), not found in the original sources, were attempting to highlight the religious and spiritual importance of the holiday as opposed to the military side of it. The haftara we read, which describes the menora and then gives its meaning, "Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit - said the Lord of Hosts" (Zechariah 4:6), encapsulates this message very well. The symbolism of kindling light amid the darkness is very powerful. Most ancient religions had holy days at the winter solstice when lights were kindled specifically at the time of greatest darkness. The Talmud even ascribes the origin of that practice to primal Adam (Avoda Zara 8a). For pagans that was a magical way of strengthening the sun when it was weakest so that that daylight would increase. Judaism, of course, had no such belief. The light we kindle symbolizes the light of God's presence, the light that Torah brings into the world with its message of religious freedom. This symbolism is found throughout the Torah, from the very beginning when "Let there be light" is God's first utterance (Genesis 1:3), through the divine presence in the burning bush (Exodus 3:2), in fire at Sinai (Ex. 19:18) and in the command to built a menora and kindle lights every evening in the sanctuary before the ark (Ex. 27:20-21). As Proverbs 6:23 puts it, "The mitzva is a flame and the Torah light." Theodor Herzl once wrote about the meaning of the hanukkia. He called it "the symbol of the enkindling of a nation." "When there is but one light," he wrote, "all is still dark, and the solitary light looks melancholy. Soon it finds one companion, then another, and another. The darkness must retreat. The light comes first to the young and the poor - then others join who love justice, truth, liberty, progress, humanity and beauty. When all the candles burn, then we must all stand and rejoice over the achievement. And no office can be more blessed than that of a servant of the light." The task of each of us is to kindle light against the darkness. The task of our renewed nation is to kindle those lights that Herzl spoke of. It is not accidental that the menora is the symbol of the State of Israel, as it has been the symbol of Judaism in art and literature for thousands of years. But its spirit has to be brought to life through deeds that bring the light of God's presence alive - "Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit - said the Lord of Hosts." The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.