Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Well, here we are at another Chanukah.  I enjoy this festival.  It feeds into my need for punctuality (I light my candles as soon after sunset as possible.) and fancy for fire.  It is remarkable how popular this relatively minor festival remains amongst members of the Tribe.  Many Jews who aren't overly concerned with things like dietary laws or Shabbat make an effort to commemorate the Festival of Lights.  I know that the Christian celebration of some obscure occasion around the same time may feed into this fad.  Gloria Feldt points out that most Jews don't even know when Chanukah falls out until a Christian friend asks them, "Oh, and when is Chanukah this year?"  However, this doesn't explain the fascination with Chanukah in Israel, where Christians are much rarer than latkes.  There is some mystique about this holiday which assures its continued place in the hearts of our brethren, but it's not immediately clear what it is. 

            I have a strong hunch that the philosophic basis of this celebration isn't the reason for its popularity.  For most American Jews the idea of starting a shooting war to stop the dominant culture from eroding Jewish practice would be horrifying.  Many of us have abandoned Jewish customs voluntarily.  Again, it's probably true that many American Jews only celebrate Chanukah because the surrounding environment, media and malls, remind us to.  Most Jews in America feel fully integrated into the fabric of Americana.  Perhaps the greatest irony of the Chanukah phenomenon is the fact that Jewish Olympic-style competitions are called Maccabiahs.  Remember, one of the Maccabees' reasons for starting the rebellion was the participation of Jews in the Greek athletic games, in which men competed nude.

            Another aspect of this holiday which I don't believe is the basis of its beloved status is the power of the Rabbis.  This post-Biblical event was instituted by the Sanhedrin, great Jewish court, as a holiday.  It is a remarkable expression of rabbinic authority that we recite over the Chanukah candles:  Blessed are You, Lord, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His mitzvoth and commanded us to kindle the light of Chanukah.  It wasn't God who commanded this practice it was the rabbis, using the power derived from the Torah to establish this mitzvah.  That's pretty cool, but I still don't think that most Jews feel that they are showing their great reverence for rabbis by lighting the candles.  We rabbi types have not become that revered.

So, what is the source of the appeal of Chanukah and its little candles?  First of all, the story itself is heroic and inspiring.  We love underdogs successfully standing up to powerful bullies.  At their greatest victory (Emmaus) they were outnumbered like six to one. Even if the details of the exact issues are a bit hazy to many observers, the fact that the weak challenged the strong over matters of principle continues to resonate within the hearts and minds of modern Jews.  But I believe that there is even more going on.  The Chidushei Harim (Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, 1798–1866, the first Rebbe of Gur) wrote that the mitzvah of lighting candles on Chanukah contains the spiritual enlightenment of the original miracle of the menorah in the Holy Temple on the first Chanukah.  Somehow we're really lighting those original candles.  The Rebbe's support for this position is the text of the law in the Tur Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim, 671) which states that we light the candles l'hazkir to cause us to remember the original miraculous candles.  It doesn't just say to remember, because we're actually renewing and reliving the event.  We have the courage and strength of the Maccabees when we light this little flame.

The Chidushei Harim finds further corroboration for his idea in the poem many of us sing immediately after lighting the menorah.  We recite:  Haneirot halalu kodesh heim,  These candles are holy.  He claims that we're proclaiming that these are the very same holy candles of the Temple.  Normally, the candles that we light are usable and practical, like on Shabbat and holidays, not these lights.  That's also why in the blessings that we recite over the mitzvah of lighting we call this the candle of Chanukah, not just a candle lit on Chanukah.  It's the real, original candle itself.  The flame traverses the millennia. 

When we gaze at or even meditate on the light of the candle we should sense something special.  Just as the Maccabee warriors were able to withstand the superior forces they faced, we see this little flame also successfully competing for our attention with the far brighter electric lights of the home and the grandiose displays of light in the surrounding neighborhoods.  The perseverance of this flame inspires our steadfastness.  This identification with the modest blaze extends into the legal aspects of Chanukah practice as well.  When we see Chanukah candles burning, even if we haven't participated in the mitzvah by kindling our own, we recite:  Blessed is the Lord, God…Who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days during this season.  These unpretentious flames spark a visceral response within the breast of every proud Jew.  And the Sages of yore didn't straight away institute this holiday.  They saw that the Jews themselves over a number of years were continuing to identify and connect with the events surrounding the rededication of the Temple.  The flickering flame was only instituted to reflect a much greater blaze continuing to burn within every Jewish heart.  That warm pride of accomplishment and belonging continues to smolder in many even otherwise lukewarm Jews.

Chanukah is still cool, because its message of underdogs and righteous pride still inspires us. The season may help push its popularity, but it has its own voice as well. Our national ability to persevere and survive the tribulations of history is a story which never grows old.  The little flame still has a brave tale to tell.  Happy Chanukah!!       



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