Four Questions for Chanukah

1. At Chanukah, do we celebrate the battle or the (oil) bottle? In the Talmud, we’re told it’s all about the little cruse of oil that miraculously lit the menorah for eight days. Yet, in the prayer for Chanukah, the focus is on the miraculous victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greeks to liberate the Temple so we could worship in our way. So, in your mind, which is it, and why?

(Each and both. There is a celebration of both the physical and spiritual miracles of Chanukah. Indeed in a way the physical precedes the spiritual, or makes it possible. Yet, physical survival is not enough. We see this in all our holidays, when physical movement has a more important purpose, to clarify our identity and purpose in life. So, it is here, to understand God’s miracle with respect to light and the significance of light to us, and the spiritual purposes of our lives. Through a physical miracle, we fight and win a battle to reclaim our way, which, in turn, yields a glorious spiritual miracle.

Yet, the battle itself has its own spiritual element. The fight was not for freedom alone. It was for the very soul of Judaism – for Torah, for the mitzvoth, for living fully and publicly and proudly and in all phases of our lives as our faith instructs and guides us.

In a way, we see truth in each in that each is to be appreciated and celebrated fully and separately.)

2.   Shabbat candles are lit before dark inside our homes. Chanukah candles are to be lit near a window looking out to the street.  Why the difference?

(The Chanukah lights represent the core ritual element of this holiday for reasons we’ll discuss more in a moment. Their message is not meant for the privacy of our home alone. The Jews in the time of the Maccabees could have had many elements of their Judaism in private. But that was insufficient for them, as it is for us.

We are to light the darkness in the night, out in the world, in public. The light we celebrate is for us both in our homes and in the world, for us and for the world. We are to expose the world to this light. This was the glory of the Hasmonean victory and its legacy, which we celebrate in these days.)

3. Chanukah lights are only to be seen. We’re to make no practical use of them. We do nothing with them except to look at them. Why, and what are we to see in them?

(On a physical level, we see the match, wick, and the wax at work. Without all, the light is not possible. This simple observation of seeing has its own lessons. All in the family play a part.  We must work with others in the outer world to make things right. The physical and the spiritual go together. We are free, yet we serve. The soul and the body are separate, but in need of working together. The flame reaches upward, as our soul does, but it leaps up from the body of the wick and the wax, which support it. And all of this requires our igniting the process with our kindling!

Now let’s talk about the light itself.)

4. In our family’s home prayer book, we read this verse tonight – Light dawns in the darkness for the upright; for the one who is gracious, compassionate, and just. What do you think that means?

(In one way, the light shows us God’s truth, the mitzvot, and the way we’re to live. Yet, in another important respect, the light appears to be a blessing for those who are gracious, compassionate, and just. Broadly understood, our experience of light offers us a sense of the great light God created in the beginning, the guidance for living true to God’s way in the world, and a blessing for those who do so – all in one!

This is what that flickering flame should mean to us, not just on this night, not just on the 8 nights, but at all times – as we live in our homes and in the world beyond.)

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