Hanukkah Kavannot 5775
Hanukkah is the festival of bringing light into the darkest time of the year, and we hope that your holiday is joyous and filled with light. As you enjoy your Hanukkah delicacies and light your Hanukkiyot, we offer you one kavannah for each day of Hannukah.
It may seem intuitive to us that we light the Hanukkiah adding one candle each night. Yet the Rabbis of the Talmud debated how the Hanukkiah should be lit. The school of Shammai maintained that eight candles should be lit on the first night and on each subsequent night we would light one less candle. The school of Hillel, however, held that we would light one candle on the first day and increase the number of candles we light. We know that Hillel’s practice won out and the Rabbis of the Talmud tried to figure out why. They offer the idea that we increase the number of candles we light each night because when it comes to matters of holiness, we increase instead of decrease. They apply this principle to the lights of the Hanukkiah but also to all aspects of our lives. What are ways that we ensure we are increasing in holiness and not decreasing? Let’s use the light of the Hanukkiah as a reminder of the ways we can continue to bring more holiness into our lives and the lives of those around us.
This year, as we celebrate the rare and exciting blend of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving (fondly referred to as “Thanksgivukkah”), let us think about how the themes of these two important holidays might go together. What does the Hanukkah miracle have to do with gratitude and being thankful? After lighting the Hanukkah candles, many sing the song “Maoz Tzur,” which bears the line, “Tikon beit tefilati, vesham toda nezabe’ah/Let our house of prayer be restored, and there we will offer thanks”. Gratitude, as a crucial value in Judaism, is such a driving force in the desire to have a place to pray. On Hanukkah, we aren’t only celebrating the defeat of the Greeks. It wasn’t just that we wanted to win- we needed to keep our holy Temple so that we could offer thanks and show our gratitude to God. Now that we no longer have a Temple and a place devoted to giving thanks, how do we make sure that we express our gratitude? Let’s use the light of Hanukkah, throughout the next week, to help us carve out the spaces in our own lives where we can offer gratitude.
Most of us know the story of Hanukkah, with the Menorah and the jar of oil that lasted longer than expected. But according to Pesikta Rabbati (an early medieval Jewish collection of writings on the Jewish holidays), there is another version of story, which says that when the Maccabees re-entered the Temple after defeating the Greeks, “they found there eight spits of iron. They grooved these out, and kindled wicks in the oil they poured into the grooves.” (2:1. Trans. W.G. Braude, The Book of Legends). Hanukkah could have just been a holiday about military victory, the triumph of the outnumbered Jews against their mightier foes. But according to this source, the Maccabees follow the vision of Isaiah (2:4): “ they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” They found iron weapons, and turned them into vessels for light. When you light your candles tonight, try to envision that first Hanukkiah made of iron. How will you help transform aggression into light?
In the ancient Tabernacle, in the desert between Egypt and Israel, stood the precursor to our Hanukkiah: the seven-branched Menorah stationed in front of the Holy of Holies. Like all of the details about the Tabernacle, the construction of the Menorah is described in intricate detail. Reading this section of the Torah, one can’t help but wonder: “why?” Why all gold and silver and linen of the Tabernacle, why the light of the Menorah and the incense and the sacrifices, why all of this for a God who has no need for physical things? The question still resonates today: why do any Jewish ritual at all? The rabbis of the Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 15) ask this question and provide an answer. According to the story, God tells Moses, “It is not on my own account that you need these lights; rather, I have warned you about them for your own good.” God doesn’t need the light, the story says; we do. The Hanukkah lights, like the lights of the ancient Menorah, are also meant to ignite something within us. What is lit up in you when you look at these candles?
Though it’s hard to do in New York City, the original intention of the rabbis of the Talmud was that we would place our Hanukkiah right outside our front doorway for the world to see (although placing it in the window, even for the rabbis, was an okay substitute). The goal of the ritual was to show the light of the Hanukkiah with the entire world, for the purpose of pirsumei nisa: “publicizing the miracle.” Yet at the same time, this is a ritual we perform at home; even if we light candles at synagogue or in some other public space, we are still supposed to make sure we have lit them at home, too. Maybe “publicizing the miracle” is not only about sharing the story of the miracle of the oil and the Maccabees with the world, but also about finding a way to share our unique Jewish light – and the light of our home, our family, and our friends – with the broader world. As you light your own private candles tonight, find a way to make sure they can be seen. What miracles are you publicizing?
A song called “Haneirot Halalu/These Candles” is traditionally sung after we light Hanukkah candles. In this song, we state that we light these candles to remember the saving acts, miracles, and wonders which God performed. We know that the way we remember these acts is through lighting the candles themselves, as if the light of the Hanukkiah has to power to bring us closer to our ancestors who lived through, and directly benefited from, these miracles. This song also instructs us that we aren’t allowed to use the lights of the Hanukkiah for anything, but we can only look at them because they are sacred. Through looking at the lights we can offer thanks and praise to God’s Great Name. This is a powerful statement and certainly counter-cultural. We are so used to deriving benefit from everything in our lives and not simply appreciating—looking, really—at the light. Tonight, let’s take some time to just look and appreciate. After lighting your Hanukkah candles, don’t rush off to make dinner or help with homework or watch TV. Just stand there and watch. We don’t use the candles for anything, and for at least just tonight, let’s let the power of the Hanukkah be sacred in their own right.
While we have the Book of Maccabees which tells of the fight against the Greeks, this book is not actually in the Bible, and Hanukkah is our only significant historical holiday without a corresponding book in the Bible. Additionally, many people throughout our history have found the theme of military power to be troubling. The Rabbis sought to add more meaning to Hanukkah through the liturgy that we recite on the Shabbat of Hanukkah. This past Shabbat, the haftarah we read was from the book of Zekhariah, which concludes, “not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, said Adonai” (Zekhariah 4:6). The Rabbis chose this message to remind us that it’s more important to celebrate God’s Spirit, and how that Spirit can move us in our lives, than it is to celebrate might or power. What are the ways that we can use God’s spirit as a motivating force in our lives? As we light the Hanukkah candles tonight, let’s remember these words from Zekhariah, and think about how the light of the Hanukkiah can be a reminder God’s Spirit.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, in writing about the rededication of the Temple after its defilement by the Greeks, describes how the Maccabees hoped and prayed that their actions “would be graced with a miraculous fire from heaven,” as had Moses’ dedication of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, and Solomon’s dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, centuries earlier. Yet no fire came. “Every day that the miraculous divine intervention did not occur,” Greenberg writes, “was a crushing disappointment” (The Jewish Way, 267). The lighting of the Menorah by human hands and with natural fire, then, came to represent and ultimately replace the lack of divine fire descending from heaven. Lighting the Hanukkah candles is continuing in that tradition, requiring our own human participation and initiative in the Jewish covenant. We cannot wait for God to bring warmth and light to the world; like the Maccabees, it is our sacred task to take on this sacred task. What will you do, after lighting your Hanukkiah, to help bring down the miraculous fire?