Lighting the Way

Rabbi's Message - November 23, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

As we approach the start of Chanukkah (beginning sundown on Sunday), we retell the story of the Maccabees who fought for their religious freedom and the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days (and the deliciousness of latkes, jelly doughnuts and gelt!).  In recent years, the ancient message of Chanukkah resonates more strongly – the Maccabees fought for the right to live and practice peacefully in a culturally diverse empire.  We too, live in a diverse nation, and yet, we recognize that the freedom to live and practice peacefully without persecution due one’s faith, race, sexuality, or gender, are not equitable across Americans nor the world.  The Maccabees fought not only for the ability to practice their own faith openly, but against the creation of a homogenous culture in general. We too, remember that diversity is important. We especially recall our commitment to fight and persevere against intolerant forces and evil in order that redemption and freedom will prevail.

But in true Jewish fashion, how we do this has been subject to debate – and not just if one should put applesauce or sour cream on latkes. (In case you were wondering, this Rabbi says either is completely acceptable).  An interesting teaching from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 21b, gives two opinions on how to light the Chanukkah menorah.  The students of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai (both first-century C.E. Rabbis in the Land of Israel) disagreed. The Babylonian Talmud records this debate stating that Beit Shammai (Shammai’s students) maintained that one should light the menorah with eight candles on the first night and reduce the number each night following, ending with one candle on the final night. Beit Hillel (Hillel’s students) maintained that on the first day one should light one candle and increase the number of candles, ending with eight on the final night. The Talmud then supposes reasons for the practices: Shammai’s practice of decreasing the number of candles corresponds to the days still to come (or perhaps parallels Sukkot, but that’s a different lesson), while Hillel’s increasing number of candles corresponds to the days that have past.  Do we count what has already happened, or anticipate what is to come?  Do we mark how many days of the miraculous oil have occurred already, or are left?

The Talmud gives a second rationale for each opinion.  Shammai’s decreasing candles might be a parallel to the number of bulls sacrificed at Sukkot, which also decrease over eight days, while Hillel’s increasing number can be attributed to the principle that, “in matters of sanctity one increases and does not decrease.”  

My Rabbi growing up (Rabbi Jeff Glickman) would always say, “May you grow in holiness”.  I’m reminded of this each year as I watch the flames increase over Chanukkah.  In a way, Hillel “won” the debate – that’s how we light.  But preserving the debate reminds us that both methods have merit.  I’m sure we have all counted down the days until something happens.  May we too, be able to take some time to count “up” our blessings that we have too.  As we count those blessings, may we grow in holiness, and share the light we have with others.

I’ll conclude with my favorite – not Jewish-sourced – thought: A candle that lights another candle loses nothing, it just makes the world a better place.

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