Chanukah – When Mail Delay Saves the Day

Morah Yehudis Fishman
Morah Yehudis Fishman

Many Chassidic masters tell us that the letter that is written to us from above on Rosh Hashana and sealed on Yom Kippur, does not actually reach our address until Chanukah. Why the delay and why this particular ‘due date’? Let’s first look at the following teaching to help us understand.

Maimonides, the Rambam, refers the Chanukah as ‘mitzvah chaviva ad me’od,’ a very beloved mitzvah. Why does he reserve such an endearing term for what is technically considered a minor festival? To shed some light on this question, let’s recall the famous debate between the house of Hillel and the house of Shamai, about the order of lighting the Chanukah candles: Beit Hillel says,- and this is the custom we follow- we start with one and increase each day. Beit Shamai reverses the order- to go from 8 to 1. There are several reasons given for each veiwpoint. The Talmud equates the opinion of Beit Shamai with the bulls that were offered on Sukot, diminishing from 13 to 7 to reach a total of 70. The reason given for Beit Hillel is because in matters of holiness we are directed to add on light each day. Rebbe Nachman binds these two approaches to the dual nature of a flame- its property of burning is connected to Beit Shamai’s link of the sacrificed bulls which burn off any evil aspects of the 70 nations of the world, and thereby strengthen their good points. And Beit Hillel focuses on the illuminated aspects of flames to light up the darkness in the world.

The Rebbe of Belz delves further into the significance of each reason by setting up a parallel with another Talmudic discussion about Chanukah. We know that Chanukah is one of the 7 rabbinical commandments that is given Torah status where we say the blessing- ‘who has sanctified us with his commandments, and commanded us to light the candle of Chanukah.’ But since the story of Chanukah took place long after the giving of the Torah, what is the Biblical reference to this commandment? In the Talmudic tractate Shabbat page 23- a section which is the only explicit Talmudic reference to Chanukah- two opinions are given as to the Torah verses which allude to keeping the holiday. Rabbi Avyah says it’s the verse, ‘Do not turn from the words of the sages right or left.’ Rabbi Nechemia in contrast quotes the verse: ‘Ask your father and he will tell you, and your elders, and they will say to you.’

The Belzer Rebbe explicates the above Talmudic excerpt from a concept presented in the third part of Tanya called, ‘Igeret Ha’teshuva,’ letter of repentance. The Rebbe of Chabad referred to the two categories of the 613 mitzvot, 365 negative ‘don’t do’ mitzvot, and 248 positive ‘do’ mitzvot. There is a difference in the cosmic consequences of both performing and neglecting these mitzvot. A positive mitzvah brings an added flow of holy light into the world, and its neglect prevents that flow. A negative mitzvah helps to prevent dark forces from taking over, and its transgression involves adding darkness and concealment of divinity to the world. Therefore Teshuva has a different effect for each type of mitzvah. Teshuva for a positive mitzvah draws down the light that was absent from the neglect of the mitzvah. Teshuva for a negative mitzvah extracts the holiness that was co-opted by negative forces. Teshuva for negative mitzvot is harder on one hand because you have to wrestle with evil to extricate its holiness, but Teshuva for positive mitzvot can be more challenging because if they are temporal and situational, then if you missed the boat, you missed the boat.

Now back to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Very few of us go through an entire year without being deficient in the fulfillment of positive mitzvot, or without transgressing any negative mitzvot. Rosh Hashana therefore is the ‘reset button’ to clean the slate so we can have a fresh start, without having the penalty points in our lives become a massive barrier to our soul’s work in this world. This is what Teshuva is all about. As R. Zalman Z’L so directly put it, ‘Either you believe in the power of Teshuva or you drown in your own karma!’ So where does Chanuka fit in? Here’s what the Belzer Rebbe is telling us:

Along comes Chanukah which is combines both aspects of Teshuva- for both positive and negative commandments. This is what both the rabbis who discuss the source text, and Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel are alluding to. Chanukah has a power to unite polarities- the polarities of light and dark, the polarities of the written Torah and Rabbinic teachings, and the polarities of positive and negative commandments, and ultimately the polarities between the religious and the secular worlds and experiences. What is there about Chanukah that can transcend these opposites? Again, the Chassidic masters shed light (pun intended) on this question. The light of Chanukah is an aspect of the original light that preceded the rest of creation. If you got to see the two movies that came out during Kislev about transcending the time-space continuum, and seeking a unified field- Interstellar and The Theory of Everything, you can see this preoccupation that connects science and religion, just as light itself can be considered the interface between spirit and matter. The sages referred to the ‘enlightened’ Greek culture as ‘darkness,’ not because it was of no value. In fact, the only other language a Torah scroll was allowed to be written in was Greek! Rather the darkness refers to the denial that all matters in existence receive their life force from their divine source, and not from any aspect- read, being, god, etc- within the created world.

The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe said that during the minimum half hour recommended to stay with the Chanukah lights, our focus should be on ‘listening to what the lights are saying to us.’ Here too we have what is another apparent dichotomy transcended. How can this be? Very simple according to the Jewish mystics- the lights of Chanukah come from the ‘Ohr HaGanuz,’ the light that was hidden on the very first day of creation, the light that existed before there was any duality in the world- the light of day One, Yom Echad, when the Oneness of G-d was united with the divine dream of a perfect world. Ultimately this is the light of Mashiach. In that future time which some say is here now if we ‘take time’ to listen to what the hidden light in the world is telling us, we may even taste it with our senses and beyond- in the latkes, in the sufganiyot, in the smiles and laughter of friends and family, and in the possibility of a de-light filled universe, the way it was originally meant to be.

Thus, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov says that the divine love that is manifest on Chanukah is like the love of parents for their children even before they are born, perhaps, to use an apt expression, when they were just a ‘twinkle in their parents’ eye.’

So, returning to my original question of why the three month delay from the Rosh Hashana decree to its delivery on Chanukah, I think we have some sense of an answer. We had to go through one full month of festivals expressing divine compassion and closeness, and another full month of apparent distance and divine silence, in terms of embracing hugs and forgiveness. Then at the end of the third month when we begin, in the words of Rebbe Nachman, to find our connection both in the ‘good days and bad days,’ we can learn to integrate both and connect to light and love that stems from a place beyond dichotomy, and can sustain us through all kinds of spiritual weather.

Last week, we in Boulder were privileged to witness the beginning manifestation of an 18-year-old dream, the building of a new, magnificent Jewish Community Center that will unite the Jewish community in all its myriad forms of activities. How appropriate that the groundbreaking occurred not only a week before Chanukah, but also on a Chassidic festival, the 19th of Kislev, which is considered the Rosh Hashana of the Chassidic movement, a breakthrough day where the light of both the revealed and concealed aspects of Torah streamed into the world. Let us hope and pray that this building is not just a structure of physical materials, but a sanctuary and a lighthouse to bring together all ships of the Jewish community, from infants to elders, to serve those in need, to play and laugh together, to unite family and friends, and to form bonds of eternal connection in a fleeting, fragmented world. May we all be part of that great ‘Pilot light’ that will ultimately serve as a beacon that beams forth a universal message of hope, joy, and Tikkun Olam in the highest sense.

About Morah Yehudis Fishman

I have been teaching Torah and Chassidic writings for over forty years to students of all ages and backgrounds, both on the East Coast and the Midwest. I have been a director of several Jewish organizations in Santa Fe and Colorado. My articles and poetry on a wide variety of Jewish topics have been printed in many publications, and also are available online.

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  1. Yehudis, aside from your wise and learned teaachings….you framed the purpose of our new JCC 'home" so beauifully.

  2. Beautiful, Morah Yehudis. The dimensions of light are endless.