By Rabbi Kliel Rose,
(EJNews) – In just a few weeks from now we will be gathering with our family and friends to celebrate the festive holiday of Chanukah. The word Chanukah connotes the idea of “dedication.” Not only is this eight-day celebration a commemoration of the victory of the Maccabees over the armies of Syria in 165 B.C.E. and the subsequent liberation, it also venerates the “rededication” of the Temple in Jerusalem.
We do not simply observe Chanukah only for its historical significance. In fact, we are encouraged to look at the various themes of the holiday and spiritualize them so that they enhance our outlook on the world as individuals and as a community.
One of the core teachings of Chanukah is from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat page 21b. Here we are presented with the classic Machlokhet or the debate between two leading schools of thought – Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai:
“Our Rabbis taught: The commandment of Chanukah requires one light per household; the zealous kindle a light for each member of the household; and the extremely zealous — Beit Shammai maintain: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced [by one each day]; but Beit Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased.
“Ulla said: In the West [Eretz Yisrael/the land of Israel] two Amoraim [Rabbinic authorities living between approximately 220 C.E. (the traditional date of the redaction of the Mishnah) and 360 or 370 in the Land of Israel, and between 220 and approximately 500 in Babylonia], Rabbi Jose ben Abin and Rabbi Jose ben Zebida, differ concerning this: one maintains, the reasoning of Beit Shammai is that it should correspond to the days still to come, and that of Beit Hillel is that it shall correspond to the days that are gone. But another maintains: Beit Shammai’s reason is that it shall correspond to the bullocks of the Festival [of Tabernacles; i.e. Sukkot], while Beit Hillel’s reason is that we increase in matters of sanctity but do not reduce.”
Which opinion is more valid in its reasoning – Beit Hillel or Beit Shammai – might be a valuable exercise to engage with at some other point and time. For now I am inclined to see the merits within each one of these two arguments.
Rabbi Shmuel Borenstein (1856-1926 Poland) in his collection of commentaries entitled Shem MiShmuel (Chanukah 5674), suggests that Beit Shammai believe the candles commemorate the defeat of the enemy. As generations pass, it becomes harder to relate to this historical joy, so the candles diminish day by day. Beit Hillel believe the candles commemorate the rededication of the Temple. A rededication implies that the old is renewed continually.
For our contemporary ears this carries a great deal of resonance. As modern Jews we often draw a great deal of meaning from the past; we recall the oppression of slavery in Egypt, and our freedom. We tell the stories of our families’ immigration journeys. We recall how Jews in North America have historically been involved in the struggle for human rights. My colleague and friend Rabbi Jill Jacobs (Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which mobilizes 1,800 rabbis and cantors and tens of thousands of American Jews to protect human rights in North America and Israel) writes:
“…These memories remain essential parts of our individual and communal selves. And yet–memory only carries us so far. We cannot become so absorbed in memory that we fail to respond to the challenges of today, and to realize that today’s justice struggles may be different–and also similar–to those of the past, just as the rededicated Temple could never be exactly as it was…”
And yet, when we look around at the work of protecting the rights and dignity of our fellow citizens here in this city we need to ask the hard question, collectively as a Jewish community are we doing our fair share in helping to address the needs of those who are the most marginalized and downtrodden—the disabled, the impoverished and the homeless?
Many of us as individuals are deeply engaged in this kind of sacred work, but how much more meaningful and effective would it be if we were to stand together under one tent as a united Jewish community? Here I would like to agree with the statement made in the last edition of the EJN by Rabbanit Batya Friedman who rightfully offered that we ought to “…galvanize the Jewish Community including members of all the different synagogues as well as those who are not affiliated with any congregation.” In this way we can combine our efforts towards projects that ultimately better the situation for all those Edmontonians who have fallen on hard times.
As we prepare to receive the holiday of Chanukah in the coming weeks – bringing the light of love and joy into the community at large – I hope that the concept of rededicating one’s self to the task of enhancing the quality of life for the city we live in will reverberate for many of us. Moreover, I am optimistic that more of us will find a way to feel connected to the needs of those individuals in our city who are most in need of our collective efforts. I offer this as a challenge, perhaps we can accomplish this noble goal by honouring what is a fundamental theme of Chanukah; rededication.
G-d-willing, we will find ourselves more attached to renewing that which is essential to our Jewish values system namely, Gemilut Chasadim, acts of loving kindness.
As we know, this aspect for any particular (religious or ethnic) group can be neglected especially when a group finds itself moving up the social hierarchy having acquired increased material wealth or socio-political leverage within the dominant culture.
As Jews, when we fall prey to this very superficial social construct we lose touch with the cherished values that have sustained our people throughout history. This would tear at the very fabric of our identity.
When Chanukah does arrive each night we will light one more candle. May we commit to moving forward–to grappling with today’s human rights challenges, and to moving toward a future where all people–those with financial means as well as those who are not as fortunate–can be filled with light.
Rabbi Kliel Rose is the Rabbi at Edmonton’s Beth Shalom egalitarian conservative congregation.