Just a couple of weeks ago, Dr. Moshe Halbertal spoke to our community about the Israeli elections and the formation of Israel’s new government. These winter days, a physical darkness overwhelms us. But in his discussion, Dr. Halbertal expressed a spiritual darkness prevailing in Israel as well, with the new government that has led to, what he termed, “a betrayal of memory and a breakdown of a certain sensitivity to equality of all that is God-given.” His analysis was grim. Yet his assessment of what to do was clear: “Surrender is self-fulfilling.” He did not downplay the darkness. He warned against disengagement. He asked us to invest in Israel and to commit faithfully to a brighter future.
It is this same intention that our rabbis teach is the essence of Hanukkah.
There is a famous debate between the scholars of Hillel and Shammai in the Talmud about how to light the Hanukkah candles:
בֵּית שַׁמַּאי אוֹמְרִים: יוֹם רִאשׁוֹן מַדְלִיק שְׁמֹנָה, מִכָּאן וְאֵילָךְ פּוֹחֵת וְהוֹלֵךְ. וּבֵית הִלֵּל אוֹמְרִים: יוֹם רִאשׁוֹן מַדְלִיק אַחַת, מִכָּאן וְאֵילָךְ מוֹסִיף וְהוֹלֵךְ.
Beit Shammai say: On the first day one kindles eight lights and, from there on, gradually decreases the number of lights until, on the last day of Hanukkah, he kindles one light. And Beit Hillel say: On the first day one kindles one light, and from there on, gradually increases the number of lights until, on the last day, he kindles eight lights (Shabbat 21b).
We know who won the debate. And we continue to light the hanukkiyah according to Hillel’s idea: that one should ascend in holiness and not descend:
מַעֲלִין בַּקֹּדֶשׁ וְאֵין מוֹרִידִין
In the famous rabbinic story of the Maccabees, who find only a small flask of oil in the Temple, they had the faith to light that little bit of oil for the possibility of making light in the darkness. And then, one day at a time, the light increased.
That decision to light the first candle is perhaps the most important of all. Even when it doesn’t appear that sustaining light is possible. Even when the odds are not in our favor. Even when there is uncertainty about being successful—we must still try. We light and then we light again, increasing the possibility to rise in holiness. Surrendering will most certainly keep us in the dark.
Rebbe Nahman teaches that cynicism is a form of evil speech. Lighting the hanukkiyah is an affirmation of faith, hope, and possibility.
Throughout Hanukkah, BJ members will reflect on experiences they’ve had or people they’ve met who have increased the light. May we all have such stories to tell. May we all live a life that chooses the light and fulfills the charge of this dark time of year. Let us ascend in holiness.