My D'var Torah for Shabbat Chanukkah 5783 (December 24, 2022).
A question I often get around Chanukkah is: Is it true that all the candle hae to be at the same level, other than the shamash? Usually the question comes from creativity -- someone who wants to repurpose another item as a chanukkiah, or who has a new vision of the candles and their combination visually or symbolically or both. So for example, artists have asked me if they can make a thing with a spiral or a certain kind of zigzag and still call it a kosher chanukkiah. Growing up I never learned that this was an issue, but you hear the question a few times and you start to think it must be a thing.
Well, as a matter of principle in halacha (Jewish law) the answer is yes, you can have these kinds of chanukkiot! Though if you think you heard that Jewish law says “no” you’re not wrong, and I’ll get to that. The Jewish law books say first that you have to be able to differentiate each flame when you are looking at the chanukkiah. This is the opposite of a medurah, which in modern Hebrew is a campfire or a bonfire. Medurah in itself is cool, and in a medurah like a chanukkiah because you have a lot of flames, but with a medurah or a campfire they are jumbled up together and you can’t perceive each one because they are mixed up and move around. Anyway, one easy way to make sure you have a sert of distinct burning wicks, and not have it appear like a medurah, is to space them out in a sequence on the same level. That’s what the books of Jewish law actually say about the straight line. Personally I don’t really get the same level part, because if you follow the logic of the Talmud out each night representing another level of holiness, you should be able to set up the candles like a staircase or an upward ramp. The Ashkenazi tradition is to stick to the straight line but to me it’s like eating legumes on Pesach, so be Sephardi if you like and spread your candles out however you find intriguing!
What is this all about, the difference between a line of flames and a campfire? Why shold we care?
In the Torah in the Mishkan (desert tabernacle), and in the Beit Hamikdash (the Temple in Jerusalem), there were oil lamps and a wood fire, both of which were always going day and night. Oil lamps we think of in connection with Chanukkah because of the ancient seven-branched menorah, and the Temple also had the ner tamid, the eternal light fueled by olive oil.
The fire on the altar reminds me of the burning bush, fire weaving and moving around through the scraggly scrub. One midrash says that the burning bush represents the suffering and the prayers of all the Israelites, and the presence of the Divine with them -- but as a whole, undifferentiated, all of their pain and groans and prayers jumbled together. Vast but trapped in place. In contrast to all that stood Moshe, a single person in that moment, not yet a leader; and the Divine, also singular, not yet in action to save them.
These ancient fires and lamps got me thinking again about this halacha about the differentiated lights. It’s not just about what you see on any given day: six candles, rather than a blazing fire pit with six or more sticks or branches somewhere in there. I think the law is also about perception across eight nights. It’s about the ability on the first night of Chanukkah to say this is one candle, the next night to perceive that these are two candles, and so on all the way to eight.
There is a difference between each candle, and there is a also a difference between perceiving one candle, and five, and eight.
Do you experience something different about the chanukkiah on different nights?
I really noticed this year on days 4 and 5 how different the chanukkiot looked by my window, compared to day 1 and 2. I mean Captain Obvious, I know -- but it’s gotten me to challenge myself about not looking at one as a means to two, not always looking at a couple candles in order to be excited about seven or eight. In my home, the effect is especially pronounced because we have several chanukkiot going each night; the effect of the change from night to night is dramatic. For me the meaning of these teachings about perceiving one, perceiving two, etc. is not to see two people in our community primarily as a strategy for connecting with a third one. How do we get ourselves toward appreciating each of the groupings in the Chanukkah story? Really appreciating just Judith or Matityahu in action; or just Yehudah Ha-Maccabee and his brothers; and just their small band; and their large force. I know I sometimes need to remind myself not to see small numbers of people just as inferior or miniative versions of larger numbers.
My colleague and classmate Rabbi Sue Fendrick once gave a talk in which she mentioned the distinctness of different numbers of people in Judaism.
Two people together are a chavruta, a study pair. There’s something unique about two people facing each other over words of Torah, with no one else to hide behind when your partner expresses and idea or asks a question. You experience Torah differently in a pair, differently than in a Torah service and even a small discussion group.
Three people make a beit din, a court of law. They can rule on a conflict over money and property; they can proclaim officially that someone has become Jewish. Three are enough to call each other formally after a meal in gratitude -- chaverai, n’varech! -- to say the blessing called Birkat Hamazon.
Ten of course are a minyan, enabling us to have a Torah service or say the Mourners’ Kaddish and respond. Ten defines a public according to Jewish law. If you do an act that is seen in the presence of ten or more and is particularly ethical and does honor to the Divine and our people -- a Kiddush Hashem -- that’s a bigger deal than if fewer were around to see it. And the same for Chillul Hashem, if in the presence of ten one does something particularly unethical and shames us or the name of God.
I think about the 208 delegates at the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897 -- that’s far fewer than make up this congregation today. So too the 23 on the ship that landed the first formal Jewish community in North America in 1654, in New Amsterdam.
Seven, I learned in group psychology, might be the ideal size of a committee or task force -- the point where the chemistry of introverts and extroverts, creatives and analyticals, has the best chance of combining a good end product with good feeling about the experience.
Eight is the extra on top of that seven -- it’s the number of covenant, the leap from the best of what people can accomplish together in our reality to something we might deem messianic.
Even one, in Judaism, is a kind of group. You may be solitary, but you are never alone. Moshe, alone at the burning bush, was with the Divine, and the singular Divine, Adonai Echad, had Moshe. The first candle of Chanukkah has the shamash, the fire that links them to someone else who stored the oil and planned for you to arrive, waited for you to make them less alone.
Jews today are conditioned in a good way to think of how the people in any given “here” can spread what we have -- but our weakness is to get caught up too much on who is missing. The Chanukkah miracle of the oil was meant to reframe scarcity as not just sufficiency, but abundance and overflowing. So too we should see whoever is in the room or around the table, in any number, as abundant and overflowing. You may by now be thinking of Margaret Mead, who could have been talking about each night’s chanukkiah when she famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
So part of the sweetness of the Chanukkiah is the chance to appreciate all the numbers we find ourselves in, the partnerships and discussions and services and protests and parties. The unique and distinct character of each group where we act and learn and reflect and grow. Each day of Chanukkah is a unique festival of lights.
My colleague Rabbi Fendrick closed the talk I mentioned with this beautiful last part from a poem by Marge Piercy called “The Low Road”, and it’s a perfect kavvanah (intention) as we look at our candles each night:
Two people can keep each other sane
can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation
a cell, a wedge.
With four you can play games
and start a collective.
With six you can rent a whole house
have pie for dinner with no seconds
and make your own music.
Thirteen makes a circle,
a hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity
and your own newsletter;
ten thousand community
and your own papers;
a hundred thousand,
a network of communities;
a million our own world.
It goes one at a time.
It starts when you care to act.
It starts when you do it again
after they say no.
It starts when you say We
and know who you mean;
and each day you mean
Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh Tov and Chag Urim Sameach!
A Good New Month and a Joyous Festival of Lights!
This was my column in the December 2019 bulletin for Temple Beth Abraham:
I love Chanukkah. I love the row of chanukkiot, the special menorahs, set up by the window for each member of the family. Just the simplicity of light and then a bit more light every day, with a bit of color, and before you know it the difference between one candle for each and eight. Hope, lights kindling more lights, a simple melody for blessings with voices of different ages.
What I have really come to love about Chanukkah is that the story itself is actually about having a holiday when other people are having another holiday. That’s not a new thing, an American thing, even a Judaism-and-Christianity thing. It’s way back at the beginning. Chanukkah, like Purim (stay tuned in a few months), is the festival about us.
The simplest Chanukkah story is about King Antiochus outlawing Judaism and defiling the Temple in Jerusalem, until a band of Jewish priest-warriors said no, fought a battle for four years, drove out the king’s forces and purified the Temple. A story of religious freedom instead of tyranny, and self-determination in our land, and miracle.
Around that story is another story, and it’s longer. It starts in the 300s B.C.E., with Alexander the Great. He led a military campaign through the Middle East and established an enormous empire from Europe to Persia to Africa, including the Land of Israel. His conquests also brought a culture, the Greek-infused Hellenism that changed the language people spoke as well as art, architecture, athletics and ideas.
Jews, both in and out of Judea, wrestled with what it meant to live in a Hellenistic world. In the century or so after Alexander the Great, the Jews in Egypt translated the Torah into Greek, a version that is known as the Septuagint. They didn’t speak or know very much Hebrew and needed a Torah in their own language.
One of my favorite ancient Jewish stories is a legend about the writing of the Septuagint. The Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates is a Jewish text that invents a different origin for the Greek version of the Torah. The Letter of Aristeas says that the Hellenistic emperor in Alexandria, Egypt, heard that there was a book he was missing for his great library of all the world’s wisdom: the Torah.
In order to complete his library, he would need it translated into Greek. So he sent for a group of seventy scholars to come down for Jerusalem, and he threw them a kosher banquet. This story, written by a Jew in Greek, even presents the scholars as though they were excellent Greek philosophers!
By the time of Antiochus and the Maccabees, a lot of Jews were wondering whether they needed Hebrew, or even Judaism (much of it's opening chapters are different than our version, another story). There was social pressure to become like other people. Even the Jerusalem priests took on Greek names, like we generally have English ones. There was a fierce debate within the Jews of the time about how much to integrate with others, and how much Hellenism to integrate into Judaism.
So while Antiochus was a madman and a tyrant, his rise was also the catalyst for getting all of this into the open. In fact, one of the oldest historical books we have about Chanukkah spends most of its time talking about these debates among Jews, about our relations with others and about how much Greek culture to bring into Jerusalem.
Even the date of the start of Chanukkah is connected to these themes. We celebrate beginning on the 25th of the month of Kislev in the Jewish calendar. The 25th of the final month of the solar year was, in the surrounding cultures, a pagan holiday already. Both Jews and later Christians took that festival of light period from others, and made it a symbol of our own lights. In the very act of claiming that day as our own, we remember that Jews of the time battling for their own culture.
The Hellenistic world that was Alexander the Great’s legacy is an analogy for our world, particularly for the Jewish community in America. So it’s absolutely right that we end up presenting ourselves to others, to the majority, at this time of year – explaining things, being ambassadors, talking about what connects us through the winter festivals and what is unique about us.
So embrace that. Be Chanukkah. Get ready when people ask you about Chanukkah and Judaism. Be ready with more than “Chanukkah isn’t our Christmas” -- your favorite thing about being Jewish, your favorite mitzvah or custom or story or idea. Your story of why and how you are Jewish in this modern-day version of a Hellenistic world.
Then you’ll be the candle that lights another candle. You can be a candle of pride that shines, and a candle that lights more understanding among other people who look at us, as we glow uniquely at this time of year.
Chag Urim Samayach – A Joyous Festival of Lights,
This last day's focus on Jewish dedication is centered on the number 8 itself. Eight is a significant Jewish number. A bris takes place on the eighth day of a boy's life. Eight is associated with the ancient Temple in Jerusalem -- King Shlomo dedicated the first Temple on Sukkot, the eight-day fall festival. In the Torah, the portable Mishkan began to operate at the end of an eight-day ritual.
Eight, in other words, is the number that represents covenant. Seven is nature, and eight is something extra. What God adds, what we bring -- eight is the partnership between human beings and God in this world.
There are, according to Rabbi Moses Maimonides, eight levels of tzedakah. The highest level is a gift, loan, or partnership that helps a poor person become self-sufficient. Leading in the Jewish community in this commitment is the Jewish Funds for Justice TZEDEC program, which I have written about before and can't ever resist boosting again. TZEDEC pools capital from Jewish institutions and individuals, and invests in loan funds that support economic and community development in low-income areas. Their newest intiative is called, aptly enough, 8thDegree. It makes microloans to support small businesses in New Orleans, which is still rebuilding slowly after Hurricane Katrina. TZEDEC and 8thDegree flow from Jewish teachings but support the wider community.
Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh Tov (it's the beginning of the new month of Tevet), and for a final time this year, Chag Urim Sameach!