The best loved of Jewish holidays in America is Chanukah. Chanukah is also known as the festival of lights. No wonder people love Chanukah — it is so beautiful with lights everywhere on the streets at home and a feeling of warmth and hope in the cold, dark winter. The family gathers each night to light candles and eat latkes; the children receive Chanukah gelt (money) or gifts.
The Talmud tells us that beginning with the 25th of Kislev (Hebrew month), eight days of Chanukah are to be observed, during which no eulogies are to be delivered, and no fasting is permitted. When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem, they defiled all the oils, and when the Hasmoneans (the Maccabees) defeated them, they searched and found only one remaining jar of oil with the seal of the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest). Although it contained only enough oil to burn for one day, a miracle occurred, and the oil burned eight days. A year later, the Rabbis designated these days as holidays on which praise and thanksgiving were to be said. (Tractate Shabbat 21).
Since then, we light candles for eight days in dark, winter evenings and say the blessings over them. It is significant that we light one candle for each day of the celebration because each candle represents a day the oil burned in the Temple Menorah. The candles are held in a symbolic candelabrum called the Chanukiah. The Chanukiah consists of nine candle holders, with a lead holder called the Shamash. The Shamash is the first candle to be lit each night, and it is used to light the other candles.
If you take a glimpse into the Jewish literature on Chanukah, it is clear that these eight days are dedicated specifically to Inner Light, the internal lighting that brightens the soul. Undoubtedly, Chanukah is a victory celebration. However, the emphasis is not on the struggle against tyranny, the land liberated, “religious freedom” or the military victory against overwhelming odds; it is actually the celebration of a spiritual struggle and a spiritual victory. Despite the Hellenization of a significant number of Jews in Israel, the Jewish people refused to surrender to the tidal wave of the dominant Greek culture which proclaimed that it alone was civilized, contemporary and relevant. By stubbornly insisting on maintaining their own identity, their core values and their spiritual way of life, and by forcing that way of life on Jews who had rebelled and succumbed to Greek culture, the Maccabees not only survived – they also revived Jewish life for all time to come.
Are we facing the same challenges today as they did? The Greeks followed their eyes; The Jews followed their souls. Thank God that today we live in a free, safe society with the freedom of choice. And yet – do we follow our souls or our eyes? I think most of us are more fascinated with the external lights and thus follow our eyes. There is the ongoing battle between the eyes and the soul: the outer light verses the inner light. The eyes breed desire while the soul fosters content.
At BJDS, we nurture our children’s souls. We teach our children to reach beyond the elements of physical beauty. We teach them to better the world by acting every day with kindness, compassion and justice towards each other. We teach our children to see the internal beauty of one another, more then just the external beauty. Beauty cannot be an independent value as the Greeks viewed it. We teach our children to not be limited by what humans can see, touch, hear, and smell. We teach our children to be aware of what the essence of humanity is, and what we can become when we reach beyond ourselves.
Our sages teach us that the flame is a physical manifestation of the spiritual. “Ki Ner Elokim Nishmat Adam” — “The candle of God is the soul of man.” Like the human spirit, a flame can die or soar, it can be extinguished with the flick of the finger or it can light up an entire world if provided with sufficient fuel. The essence of the Jew is his spirit.
Let’s continue to support the BJDS flame and light up the Boulder Jewish community. This is a wonderful time of year to extend your generosity towards BJDS. Keep our flame going, and reach out to the wider Jewish community so our tiny flame will glow even brighter!
The light of Chanukah is small. If each of us keeps our light pure, this small light will grow and radiate over the entire world.
Shabbat Shalom, Happy Chanukah
Sources: Talmud Shabbat 21;
Chanukah; Light or fire? by Rabbi Pinchas Stolper