Hanukkah, like everything else over these past eight months, will be different from years past. Yet, along with Jews around the world, we will do what we always do and what our people have been doing for almost 2,000 years: we will light the Hanukkah candles, an act that symbolizes the resiliency of our People.
Jews have lit Hanukkah candles in the hardest of times and in places where we had to hide our identities, which is particularly tragic given that we light the candles in order to proudly shine the light of our Jewish identities and spirituality for the world to see. So, in spite of the many challenges we face right now, let us rejoice at the fact that we live in a democracy where we are free to practice our religion as we choose.
There is a debate in the Talmud about how to light the Hanukkiah (the Hanukkah menorah) between two sages who often found themselves at odds: Shammai says to start with all eight candles lit and proceed to count down each night until we are left with one candle on the eighth night. Hillel says to start with one candle on the first night and proceed to add one candle each night until all eight candles are lit on the eighth night.
Shammai lost the argument, which is why we light the Hanukkiah today as suggested by Hillel. Like with so many debates, however, the Talmud preserves the dissenting opinion. Why?
In part this is to remind us that when it comes to the most essential ethical or theological questions, when it comes to matters of consequence, there is never one right way. We are flawed human beings with only fragmented perceptions of the true and the good; hence, “these and these are the words of the living God” – we are left with multiple, competing notions of truth. The world is increasingly inclined toward false dichotomies and false choices between extreme positions. The debate about how to light Hanukkah candles reminds us that there are numerous ways to live out our values. We need to open our minds and expand our hearts enough to hold competing perspectives and to navigate the nuances of the complex reality in which we live. We need to make hard choices and act on our convictions, yes; but we also need learn from and stay in relationship with those with whom we disagree.
I think there is a second reason why our tradition preserves dissenting opinions about laws and rituals. It is to remind us that beneath our practices often lie deeper ideas about the world. At this level of philosophical or spiritual exploration we often discover even deeper debates about worldviews, ethics and spirituality. So, what are Hillel and Shammai really arguing about?
For Shammai, we should count down each night because the spiritual peak of Hanukkah was the miracle – the victory over the Hasmoneans or the initial lighting of the oil. And then it’s all downhill from there. Our best days are behind us. We light each night to remind us of the glory of the miracle past, which is worthy of song and praise and celebration; yet, we also remind ourselves that we are no longer as close to that miracle, or, perhaps, to the Divine, as we once were.
For Hillel, the miracle is only the beginning of the story. We light an additional candle each night because we only increase in holiness. While God might have set the holiday in motion, it is human beings who have the power to add fuel and light, to tell and retell the story and to magnify God’s presence in the world. Our best days are yet to come because we believe that tomorrow can be even better than today, and that we have a critical role to play in making that happen.
These are two profoundly different worldviews – and the fact that the rabbis nearly always side with Hillel – tells us something about how they see the world and our role in it.
Over these past eight months, I have witnessed with awe and humility the ways that our community has responded to this pandemic. So many are suffering right now as these health, economic, social and political crises exacerbate the ways that our country has been broken since long before COVID-19. There have been days when I have wondered whether our best days were behind us.
And yet, every day I am privileged to watch as so many in our community step up, show up, lead and give with extraordinary compassion and generosity. It is all of you who restore and inspire my faith – in our People, our humanity, our community and our country. Because this is what we do; even in the darkest of times. One candle at a time, we add to the holiness, holding fast to the faith that our best days are yet to come, and playing our part in lighting the way toward that brighter and better tomorrow.
Rabbi Marc Baker is the president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies.