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Channukah Torah

Day 1. Fire. Illuminating and Burning

Fire. Burning and Illuminating.


In Mishnaic times, there were two traditions of how to light the Hannuka candles:


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.


Beit Shammai light eight lights on the first night and descend to a single candle. Beit Hillel, the tradition we follow, start with a single candle and increase daily to eight on the final day.


What is the basis of this dispute? Rav S.Y Zevin (20th Cent) explains it in the following manner. Do we perceive fire as something that illuminates or as something that burns and consumes?


Fire gives light. Channuka comes as the days are short and dark, and a single candle dispels much darkness. Torah too is compared to light (Prov 6:23), as is the human soul: “the light of God is the soul of Man.” The ideals we hold dear as humans and Jews have the power to illuminate, inspire and give meaning to our personal lives and our national ethos, to brighten and show the way to creating a better world.


But fire also has the capacity to burn and consumes. Fire represents the social mandate to fight against and expunge forces of evil, negativism, violence and harmfulness. And in a personal sense, sometimes we have areas of our personal lives that are so toxic that they too need to be eradicated.


And here, Beit Shammai and Hillel disagree. Beit Hillel argue that when one generates more light, more goodness in the world, hate and ugliness will be forced into retreat. Each day another candle is added as we create a momentum of increasing light. But Beit Shammai say that one cannot raise oneself, one cannot move forward in society, until one expunges the forces of negativity that surround and obstruct goodness. Their fire burns the evil that surrounds until at the end of Hannuka it is all consumed, the eight candles reduced to a single flame.


Hannuka marks the battle between Judaism and Hellenism, a struggle that threatened the very survival of Judaism. When we are confronted by threats to way of life, do we fight and battle the forces that endanger our future, or do we build, expand and bolster the values we hold dear so that their power overwhelms the forces that confront us.


Light or burn? Interesting. We follow Beit Hillel. Do you agree?

Day 2 - Dedication and Re-dedication

Every morning we read about the dedication of the altar in the Wilderness - Channukat Hamizbeach.

Each tribal leader gave a gift. Aharon, the High Priest, brought no gift.

Rashi tells us (Bamidbar 8:1) 

When Aharon saw the dedication [offerings] of the chieftains, he felt distressed that he was not a participant in this dedication-neither he nor his tribe.

God said to him, “By your life, yours is greater than theirs, for you will light and prepare the lights of the [Temple] Menorah.” 

But this hardly solves the problem.

The chieftans, the tribal leaders, took part in a gala event, in the celebratory inauguration of the Temple. It was a public event, a national inauguration, a moment that the nation would remember. Aharon and his sons, in contrast, get to tend to and light the Temple Menorah. This is grueling daily work: cleaning, filling the oil, lighting ...morning and night. There is no glamour, no publicity. It happens away from theheadlines and the cameras.

But this is exactly the point. 

It is easy to attend the "grand opening" of a new institution. Everyone is excited. There is an atmosphere of the fresh, the new. But what  happens a month later, a year later, a generation later? What happens when the excitement subsides, the enthusiasm wanes.

That indeed is the role of Aharon. His energy is not dedication but RE-dedication. The daily grind, the upkeep, the daily rekindling. That is Aharon's power.

And that is Channuka. After the Greeks challenged Judaism and desecrated the Temple, some people refused to buckle. They refused to accept that Judaism should give up the fight. They started a grueling rebellion to rekindle Judaism, to find the hidden "jar of oil", the Jewish essence and to let that light of rebellion grow. and they won the war! Maybe it isn't incidental that they were priests, descendants of Aharon. It was a hard fight, with, I imagine, many moments of doubt. 


And so, we too...In the darkness of winter, we rekindle the fire and spread the light.

But the real challenge is to rekindle enthusiasm for our daily duties, our religious "chores", our mitzvot, which are the routine that is the dynamo of our spirituality. It is easy to be there for the highlight. But can we [metaphorically] light the Menorah every day?

Day 3. Levinas: The Light and the Dark

Channuka occupies a curious, liminal space. It is a festival that balances on boundaries: The lights that are lit נר איש וביתו - in connection to the home, the household, are in fact lit not for the inside, but for the outside! They are placed at a nexus point, a portal, in the very threshold, the doorway of the home - נר חנוכה מצוה להניחה על פתח ביתו מבחוץ.

The Mitzva is timed specifically in liminal time - from sunset until nightfall - the uncertain period of transition between days.

The candle, or light itself is a mysterious nexus point (as noted by the Zohar) of the physical and spiritual; the flame fueled by the physical - oil or wax, but generating almost ephemeral entity - the flame ... which illuminates the darkness that surrounds it.

These riveting paradoxes will provide me with much to consider over the upcoming few days. But here, is yet another fascinating contrast from the writings of Immanuel Levinas. It is from an essay called "The Light and the Dark". I quote a short-ish but phenomenally beautiful segment:

"...When the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day's lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days." (Talmud Shabbat 21b)

Hanukkah is therefore for us the miracle of a light richer than the energies feeding it, the miracle of 'more' from 'less', the miracle of surpassing. The Hasmonean resistance is also this light detached from its material sources. ...It is the daily marvel of the spirit that precedes culture. It is a flame that burns with its own fervour: the genius that invents the previously unheard-of, even though everything has already been said; the love that is inflamed even though the loved one is not perfect; the will that undertakes to do something despite the paralysing obstacles in its way; the hope that lights up a life in the absence of reasons for hope; the patience that bears what can kill it. It concerns the infinite resources of the spirit that, as a creator, surpasses the prudence of techniques; without calculation, without past, it joyfully pours forth its feelings in space, freely and prodigiously entering into the cause of the Other.

But the text I have just cited corrects this audacious wisdom with a further wisdom:


Creation, freedom, permanent renewal. Does this revolutionary essence of the spirit tell us everything of its mystery? It blows where it will. But is every wind that blows in this way already a spirit, by virtue of this simple contempt for frontiers? Is to transgress already to surpass? Our own lights cannot burn in a simply gratuitous manner.


Before the miracle of generous light, and as a condition of this miracle, another miracle took place: a dark miracle that one forgets. One forgets it in the blaze of lights triumphantly burning brighter. But if, in the Temple ravaged and profaned by the infidels, one had not found in a little flask of pure oil bearing the seal of the High Priest, which, ignored by everyone but unchanging, had remained there throughout the years while the candelabra remained empty, there would have been no Hanukkah miracle. There had to be preserved somewhere a transparent oil kept intact.

Oh! nocturnal existence turned in on itself within the narrow confines of a forgotten phial. Oh! existence sheltered from all uncertain contact with the outside, a lethargic existence traversing duration, a liquid lying dormant on the edge of life like a doctrine preserved in some lost yeshiva, a clandestine existence, isolated, in its subterranean refuge, from time and events, an eternal existence, a coded message addressed by one scholar to another, a derisory purity in a world given over to mixing! Oh! miracle of tradition, conditions and promise of a thought without restraint that does not want to remain an echo, or brief stir of the day."

What a stunning passage!

Here we have the dynamic tension of renewal, surpassing, creativity, reaching beyond, innovation - on the one hand - and preservation, tradition, the unchanging, the perennial - on the other.

Day 4. New Light

The Talmud discusses whether הנחה עושה מצוה או הדלקה עושה מצוה.

Is it enough to take a pre-lit lamp and place it outside?

Or must one kindle lights anew?

The answer is - that one must light a new flame.

The mitzvah - the key to Channuka - is to kindle new light.

Channuka reminds us that we have to recreate, to increase.

It is not enough just to re-locate old light.

We must generate new light, new Torah; we must recreate ourselves.

(Easier said than done.)

Day 5. Modern Zionism, Hannukah and Jewish Power

Does Channuka celebrate the impervious Jewish spirit, everlasting and miraculous; or is it a celebration of independence and sovereignty?

Answer: Correct! Yes and Yes!

  • “Al Hanissim” speaks of the war;

  • “מאי חנוכה” (the Talmudic passage that discusses Channuka) speaks of the miracle.


The Rambam salutes the political independence of the Hasmonean state - וחזרה מלכות לישראל יתר על מאתים שנים, however, we will read the Haftara selected for this Shabbat: 'לא בחיל ולא בכוח כי אם ברוחי אמר ה'.

In a famous comment, Nachmanides (Bereshit 49:8) suggests that the Hasmonean royal house was eventually wiped out as a punishment for abrogating the rule that a priest, a kohein, not serve as a king.

Why not? We might suggest that the priest is entrusted to nurture and cultivate the spiritual. Kohanim are the religious functionaries, guardians of the Temple, the teachers and halakhic judges of Israel. In this regard, they must preserve a neutrality; we want them in the spiritual “ivory tower” where the spiritual can remain pristine and unsullied by the complications and brutality of life itself.

As for the king – his is the world of war and politics. The political is an arena of egos, power, political deals and compromises; the battlefield is a world of brutality, violence and killing. Certainly, the war-front and the election trail must have a moral code, but that morality is a convention to be applied in the non-ideal arena, the messy human reality of power and politics, of survival, threats and national defense. At its essence the crucible of national security, of political survival is not an arena for the guardians of the law, the purveyors of God’s truth.

And in our recent history, some have seized the mantle of the king, whereas others the purism of the priests.

Theodor Herzl concluded the The Jewish State with the prediction “the Maccabees shall rise again,” and Zionism craved a return to power and governance. The classic secular Zionist anthem sang: “No miracle happened to us; we found no cruise of oil.”

In contrast, the Haredi community eschews the compromises of power: it sees military service as corrosive to a Torah life, it rejects the intellectual challenges of academia. A classic Haredi teaching for Channuka argues that the ideal is “שמן זית זך” – a non-wordly purity; and since the clash between the ideal and the real is so unbridgeable, it is preferable to live in an idealized world. Nation-building is not for them; the Temple will descend from heaven, the Messiah will miraculously return the exiles, and return them to God – in other words, a miracle will uncomplicate the intractable problems of our contemporary Jewish world. Hassidic sources stress that a miracle is always “above the natural.”

In liberal circles too, especially as regards Israel, we find a discomfort with the violence and the compromises that are intimately involved in wielding power, there is a yearning for an existence in which we are never morally compromised. But a majority of Israelis will tell you that whereas they wish no ill on Gaza, when Hamas fire missiles on our homes, we have a moral obligation to fire back, despite a death toll on the other side. It is impossible to stand on the sidelines here. One finds that the business of statehood and national defense are inherently mired in complicated moral decisions. Can we afford to remain in the detached world of moral purity?

And so where do those of us in the middle stand – those who mark the miracle, and the war? Those of us who celebrate Judaism's high values, and yet rejoice at a return to sovereignty. What message do we carry?

I feel that here we must return to the notion of a dialectic, whereby two poles, two extremes – both valuable and important, though they are mutually abrasive, incompatible – may be experienced not by a resolution or synthesis, but rather in a dialectical oscillation, by a lifestyle that chooses to embrace both extremes, with full knowledge that at times one will be immersed in the one and distanced from the other. One might even add that one extremity will offer a critique of the opposite pole.

After the Holocaust we cannot but be joyous for our sovereignty, for our right to defend ourselves. Here the Maccabees represent Jewish power to establish a Jewish nation state in the face of those who seek our demise. But yet, we cannot pretend that power never corrodes or corrupts our moral sensitivities. In one pocket we need to remember how critical it is for us to have independence. In the other pocket we must constantly exercise our inner moral critique, to yearn for the purity of the untainted oil.

In the Torah, the king carries a Sefer Torah. He always reminds himself of the ideal, even if he lives in the world of the practical, the possible. Likewise, the judge brings Torah standards to society, the priest serves on the law courts and is even invited to address the troops at the battle front. There is no separation of religion and state; values and holiness must permeate society, but government and the Temple are separate zones driven by different standards and mindsets.

There is no perfect balance; there is a constant calibration, an exhausting ongoing moral, strategic and spiritual calculus. There is a determination to be fully engaged in the process of state-building with all that entails, and at the same time, an aspiration and a commitment to reflecting the moral truths that are our heritage and our legacy.

Day 6 - The Jar of Oil inside You!

My daughter shared a beautiful idea of the Sefat Emet with us last night.

What is the notion of the פך שמן, the hidden jar of oil sealed by the High Priest?

Within the Jewish people there is a deep "נקודה" a nucleus of holiness, even when all around it is dark.

And in the individual too - there is always a kernel of holiness, pure and true, incorruptible and untouchable, a divine spark, that remains within every Jew.

The message of Channuka is to find that inner kernel, to foster that small amount of oil - of pure holiness, and to light it, to allow it to expand, to grow, and inspire our entire life, to ignite and warm our entire reality.

ואא"ז מו"ר ז"ל אמר עמ"ש טמאו כל השמנים כו' פך אחד כו' כי רק הנקודה טמונה שיש בכל איש ישראל אשר השי"ת מגין עלי' נשארת כו'. וכלל הדברים כי נקודה חיות הפנימיות הוא שלמעלה מהטבע בחי' שמיני. וזה הנשמה שיש לכל איש ישראל אך המכוון בהבריאה שנקודה זו תתפשט בכל מעשי האדם להפוך הכל להפנימיות כנ"ל. והנה נקודה זו נשארת. אבל היה הנס שנתפשטה לכל הז' מדות ולכך אין קושיא מה נס הי' ביום א'. כי גם זה צורך גבוה כי בלי ההתפשטות כשהיא לעצמה מה תועלת ויתרון יש בה משהי' קודם הבריאה. וכשעשה הקב"ה נסים. והאירה לכל הז'. נעשה ח' ימי חנוכה כנ"ל. ופירוש זאת חנוכה הוא שנקודה הנ"ל שהיא למעלה מהשגה והסתכלות. נתפשטה עד בחי' הקרובה אל האדם ביותר ונקראת זאת שנגלית ונראית לאדם וגם בה נתפשט נס חנוכה כנ"ל.

Day 7. Renew the Routine!

7th night. So we've been in Channuka for a week, an entire cycle, and we're looking at the end. What do we take away?

I have always been attracted to the interpretation of the Sefat Emet: מצוותה משתשקע החמה עד שתכלה (ה)הרגל מן השוק. He (mis) quotes the Talmudic law, and states that Channuka is when the sun sets in our lives, when we feel dark; then we must end our "hergel" our routinized Judaism, and refresh, rekindle, renew.

Ok. But what? What can I renew, refresh?

I happened to daven this Shabbat in a Habad Shul (in Eilat). The Rabbi's drasha was classic Habad, not my usual flavour, but it really touched me. He said something to the effect that: "Hannukah is about lighting up the darkness, spreading the light, creating light even when it seems it cannot last."

Okay. But then he added: "Everyone must feel this mission. You all have circles of influence - a neighbour, a relative, a friend at work. How can you each shine the light of Judaism - נר מצווה ותורה אור - Torah and mitzvot - further? How can you ensure it will illuminate a dark place that isn't yet illuminated? That is your mission." And so he continued...

So this gave me pause for thought.

  • Who am I influencing?

  • Am I affecting anybody through my teaching?

  • How might I teach the material less and the person more?

Day 8. The Dedication of the Mishkan.

Every Person Plays a Role

On Channuka, we read (*Torah reading in the Synagogue) the dedication of the Mishkan - חנוכת המזבח - by the Tribal leaders. Tomorrow morning we complete the reading and in some manner, complete our Temple dedication. Why do we read this? What could this mean to us?

  • In Shemot, the Mishkan is dedicated by Moshe.

  • In Vayikra, the Mishkan is dedicated by the priests - Aharon and his sons.

  • In Bamidbar - our reading for Channuka - the Mishkan is dedicated by the people's representatives.

(*full shiur here)

What does this teach us?

We can all have a connection to the sacred - we all have access to the conduit by which God speaks to us. One does not have to be a prophet or a High Priest.

Each group, each tribe, in all their difference and uniqueness - Reuven, Shimon, Yissachar Zevulun - whoever you are, however you express yourself, you have something to give, and you can connect with the divine.

The Nesiim - the tribal leaders - all brought gifts of their own volition.

We too -each and every one of us - need to find our connection point to God. We each need to use our individuality to seek a point of contact, how we can contribute our part to our Judaism, and how we can make it meaningful for us.

Zot Channuka! Channuka is not the light of the sun that rises every morning; it is rather the gifts that we bring to our Judaism, the wars we fight, the lights that we kindle in faith. (It is also the belonging to a group - 12 Nesi'im coming in unison to dedicate the Temple.)


When we put in our energy, we create the possibility that we will discover the light of meaning.

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