Happy Chanukah

Some questions seem obvious, but there is still something too them. Case in point: what is the most important thing we do on Chanukah? Obvious, right? Yes, we may think first about what to give as a gift and we may use the occasion to eat delicious foods like latkes and donuts. There is great (and not so great) music to listen too, acts of thoughtfulness to do and that old stand by dreidel. But when it comes down to it, the answer to the question "what is the most important thing to do on Chanukah", has to be light the candles, right? Right. Well, almost right.

Actually the Sages of the Talmud argued about whether the key to chanukah was the lighting of the candles or the placing of the candles. This may not seem an important distinction. We probably take for granted that when we are talking about lighting candles to celebrate Chanukah we are going to be using a menorah, the specially designed holder with a space for one candle for each of the eight nights and an extra spot for the shamash, the candle designated to help light the others. However, when the holiday was being created, many years after the war of the Maccabees and the miracle of the oil lasting eight days, there was no such thing as a menorah for Chanukah (now called a chanukiah) only the original seven-branched menorah that stood in the Holy Temple. What there was was a tradition that in order to mark the miraculous victory and rededication of the Temple, a flame should be kindled in such a way that any passerby would know was not there for ordinary light, but rather to make public the miraclulous events that had occurred. To do that, the candle had to be placed where it could be seen and accompanied by another light source whose fire could be used, the shamash. To be more special, a new light was to be added for each day of the eight-day festival. And, voila! You have the nine-branched chanukiah: one place for each Chanukah candle plus a ninth for the shamash.

And what makes them Chanukah candles? Is it because they are short and fit into a box of 44 with colors like crayons or maybe blue and white? Are they made of special wax or oil or given some blessing when they are made? No. While there is a special preference for olive oil, any candle or oil lamp can be used to fulfill the lighting of the menorah. What makes them Chanukah candles? Where, when, and with what intention are they placed.

And so the original question makes more sense. Lighting a menorah is only part of the deal. What Chanukah is about is putting the light in a place where it is seen, where it is has meaning, where it reminds us that miracles have happened and can happen any time.

I think the same is true about our own lives. What we are made of, where we come from, how much we look like someones idea of what Jewish is and what makes us light up are not the key. What makes us who we are is where, when and with what intention we find ourselves placed. Do we shine our light in a place it can be seen? Do we find meaning and inspire others as well? Do we find the miraculous in our own story and make sure we do not lose sight of the miracles around us and yet to be? These questions can help add meaning these days as we celebrate the light that refused to go out and each day that our light is rekindled.

Happy Chanukah

Rabbi Michael 




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