I’m sure you’ve heard Chanukah referred to as a minor holiday—that the only reason it’s become so popular is because of its fortuitous proximity to Christmas. In our desire to match the glitter of Christmas with a holiday of our own, we’ve over-stated the importance and the observance of Chanukah. We exchange gifts like the Christians do, even though it’s Purim that is the holiday for gifts and not Chanukah. We send Chanukah cards just like Christmas cards. And we have lavish Chanukah parties to match our neighbors’ Christmas parties. But Chanukah is really a minor holiday. It’s just no big deal. We’ve made it a big deal just because of Christmas.
WRONG!! It’s a mistake to conclude that Chanukah is just a minor holiday. Maimonides, who lived among Arabs who didn’t celebrate Christmas, refers to the lighting of the Chanukah menorah as:
an extremely beloved mitzvah...Even if a person has nothing to eat, and has to accept charity to survive, he should sell some of his clothing, if necessary, to buy oil and wicks to light the Chanukah lights...If he only has one small coin and must therefore choose between purchasing oil for the Chanukah menorah and wine for Shabbat Kiddush, he should buy the oil for the Chanukah menorah.
Beyond all the hype of Christmas, the truth is, Chanukah is not a minor holiday. Allen Rosenthal loved Chanukah and in his honor I’d like to speak to the very special unique aspects of Chanukah that made it so meaningful to him. Chanukah speaks to the Jewish soul in a way that no other holiday does. Every Jew, no matter how far removed from Jewish life, is attracted to Chanukah. What is it about Chanukah that draws in every Jew? What makes Chanukah feel like home for the Jewish soul? It’s not the gifts nor the cards nor the parties—not even the latkes. It is, I’m sure, the light, the Chanukah lights.
It’s a simple thing to light the menorah with a couple of blessings. The lights of the menorah, however, touch a familiar chord. It’s a déjà vu experience. Not that we have not experienced the lighting of the Chanukah candles before—of course we have. We may not know how to articulate the feeling, but it’s just that as we gaze at the light, we have the sense that we are beholding the light of Gd—a light that is somehow familiar to us, to our souls, no matter how distant we may be from Gd.
Kabbalah, in fact, teaches that the lighting of the Chanukah lights is a re-enactment of the 1st moment of creation, when Gd said, “Let there be light.” Our sages teach us that this primordial light was not a new creation. “Let there be” indicates that the light came from something else. But there was nothing else beforehand? Therefore, our sages concluded that this light must be nothing other than an emanation from Gd Himself. It was a special light, too intense for normal use. It was, therefore, put aside after the creation of the sun on the 4th day, for special future use.
It’s the same light we are drawn to after our souls leave our bodies with death. It’s the divine light our souls experienced before Gd put them into our bodies. That light is now hidden from us, but we can experience a bit of it in the light of the menorah. Even though we may not understand it, it is, I believe, the light of Gd that draws us all to Chanukah.
For some, Chanukah is a minor holiday because it’s not mentioned in the Torah. But Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, has been hiding all along in the Torah. Follow me as I discuss this significance of the numbers of Chanukah and the spiritual significance of numbers was something Allen loved: Chanukah falls out on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, and as the Chassidic sages point out, the 25th word of the Torah is, you guessed it, or, “light.” If you add up all the lights we light on Chanukah—1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8—you get 36 or 2 times chai, which is “life,” so there’s light for 2 lives: Light for life in this world and light for life in the next world. Also, 36 is the number of times the words “light,” “lights,” and “candle” are mentioned in the Torah.
Let me tell you a story that demonstrates the strong pull of the Chanukah lights to the Jewish soul. It’s about a 12-year-old boy in Auschwitz whose Bar Mitzvah was supposed to be during Chanukah. Since it was impossible to be called to the Torah for his Bar Mitzvah, he decided to commemorate it by fulfilling the mitzvah of the Chanukah lights instead. So a few weeks before Chanukah, he began to save potato peels and crumbs and fashion them into makeshift candles.
When Chanukah arrived, he lit his little candles with great pride, but also with great fear. As fate would have it, during one night of Chanukah, however, there was a surprise inspection. Before he knew it, a German officer ordered him to explain the candles. Defiantly he announced that it was the Festival of Lights. The officer then ordered him to put out the lights. Then, in a quiet voice, with a courage he didn’t know he had, looked up and said, “Sir, Jews don’t extinguish light, we bring light into the world.” And for some unfathomable reason, the officer —instead of shooting the boy right then and there—turned around and walked away.
How could this young boy defy the German military machine? And with what? Potato peels and crumbs? From where did he get that Maccabean courage? He probably could not explain it, but I’m sure it was the allure of the light, the assurance that when one is with the light, when one is with Gd, one can weather all the storms of life.
On Chanukah, we don’t celebrate our victory over the oppressive Syrian Greeks with military displays of might—parades of tanks and missiles. We celebrate it with light. Military machines and armaments are part of the forces of darkness, and, as the Bar Mitzvah boy of Auschwitz said to that German officer, “Jews don’t extinguish light, we bring light into the world.” And bringing light into the world is what Allen Rosenthal did every day. On Chanukah we reconfirm this as the central task of the Jew every time we light the menorah.
Judaism is preoccupied with light. Besides Chanukah, every Shabbos and every Yom Tov is ushered in with lighting candles. In many communities, the bride and groom are brought under the chupa, accompanied by lit candles. When a Jew dies, the family lights a Shiva candle and every year on the anniversary a Yahrtzeit candle, signifying that the light of the deceased in this world is extinguished. Jews look for any opportunity to bring more light into the world.
The miracle of Chanukah that we celebrate is that of a jar of oil made to last for one day that lasted for 8 days till more pure oil could be made. What kind of oil was it? It was olive oil, and so our sages teach us, that although we can light our Chanukah menorah with many different oils—even wax candles—it is preferable to use olive oil. Rabbi Matis Weinberg, in his book, Patterns in Time, comments: The olive appears on the surface to be only food. But transformed into oil, the simple fruit turns out to have contained light! And seeing it, we begin to suspect that there is light hidden in everything.
Yes, there is light hidden in everything. King Solomon taught (Proverbs 20:27): Neyr Hashem nismat adam, “Gd’s candle is the soul of a person.” Being Gd’s candles, helping to bring out the light hidden in the world is our job as Jews. But 1st we must bring out the light hidden within us. We are each special and unique because we each have a special and unique spark of Gd within us. Gd shares with every one of us a measure of His illumination and so we are each the bearers of Gd’s candle.
A Parisian artist once complained to the renowned sculptor Jacques Lipchitz that he was unhappy with the quality of the light he was painting. He had even gone to Morocco in search of a change of light, but to no avail. “An artist’s light,” Lipchitz told him, “comes not from without, but from within.”
And so, my friends, it is for us. As we gaze tonight at all 8 lights of the menorah, may it help draw out that unique light hidden within us all. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis