As Hanukkah approaches again this year, there is an underlying energy of excitement in the air. Given the last couple of years and all the life-changing drama, we all so very much want things to be “normal” again and we simply cannot fathom more of this mess and want light and life in our lives.
Is Hanukkah actually our ticket out of this mess? Are we just using Hanukkah to mask our underlying frustrations or is there in fact something magical about Hanukkah that is the antidote to the struggle?
The sages debated the observance of Hanukkah since Talmud times. There is a famous debate between the houses of Shamai and Hillel in relation to the kindling of the Hanukkah candles (Talmud, Shabbat 21b). Shamai says that on day one you light 8 candles, and decrease one light each night until on the final eve of Hanukkah you light one and then none. Hillel looks at it the other way and says you begin with one and increase each night with another candle until the final eve you have 8 candles lit (plus the Shamash) on the menorah.
One can simply say that this whole debate is semantics but, in it lies a fundamental difference in how to look at everything in life – even a pandemic that doesn’t seem to want to go away.
Shamai posits then when battling darkness, you must come out with every bit of light in your arsenal and aim it at the darkness. This is the most effective way at beating back the evil and the bonus is that it will get easier every day after that. Hillel, on the other hand, says don’t even take the evil into consideration, just stay slow and steady, focus on doing good and increasing a bit each time and this strategy will strengthen and embolden us to be stronger over the long haul to fight off and keep away the evil.
As it relates to combating a pandemic or more specifically our emotional health relating to the beating drum of despair and frustration, there are different approaches to the pandemic. One is to see it as this behemoth that we must come out guns blazing to vanquish it and thus it will get easier (Beis Shamai).
Alternatively, we can choose to not give it the ability to dominate our mind and psyche in the first place. We can just increase in our happiness quotient by adding more goodness, light, happiness, and candles in our lives and in this way circumvent the darkness attempting to invade our mind and souls (Beis Hillel).
There is a story told of a group of Chassidic yeshiva students who attempted to observe the Hanukkah holiday in the Nazi concentration camps by saving bits of oil in a shoe polish jar, which they lit each night of Hanukkah. Their problem (aside from the obvious danger of doing anything against the rules of their Nazi monster captors which included lighting a candle) was that they weren’t sure exactly which day was Hanukkah given the lack of access to calendars. To resolve this concern, they chose to add two days of Hanukkah. One on the front end and one on the back end just to be sure.
Thankfully, we don’t need to operate under such extreme circumstances, but we can certainly learn from this mindset. When it comes to a concern or question about what to do when darkness and fear threaten to overwhelm you, add lights, Beis Hillel style. Still unsure? Add more lights.
It’s a matter of perspective. Choose light.
Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman is the spiritual leader of Chabad of Peabody.