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Hanukkah Reflection by Rabbi Lisa Gelber

Nov 26, 2013 — Categories: , ,

A disagreement emerged between the houses of Shammai and Hillel regarding how to light the Hanukkah Menorah. Beit Shammai maintained that one should light eight lights on the first night of the holiday and progressively reduce them throughout the week. Beit Hillel (whose custom Jews follow today) required the kindling of one light on the first night of the holiday and the augmentation of the overall light by adding an additional flame on each successive evening.

A disagreement emerged between the houses of Shammai and Hillel regarding how to light the Hanukkah Menorah. Beit Shammai maintained that one should light eight lights on the first night of the holiday and progressively reduce them throughout the week. Beit Hillel (whose custom Jews follow today) required the kindling of one light on the first night of the holiday and the augmentation of the overall light by adding an additional flame on each successive evening.

For Shammai, we begin with the maximum potential of the commandment, illuminating as much light as possible at the outset and then decreasing the light each successive eve. Why not start big and capitalize on all of the light from the very beginning! Yet, Hillel embraced the principle ma'alin bakodesh v'ain moridin, one increases in matters of holiness and does not diminish. When lighting the Hanukkiah in this way, each night we are reminded to count up as we prepare the menorah for lighting. We not only notice the additional light, we take responsibility for the creation of that light and note its potential for holiness.

Hanukkah falls at a time of year when the light of day cannot overcome the dark hours of the night. For those living in fear of an intimate partner who exerts power and control over his/her life, the days (and nights) of winter demand additional strength and courage to withstand the cold. In the Hebrew Scriptures, b'ha'alotcha, the term used for the Priest's lighting of the menorah (not the hanukkah menorah; rather, the candelabrum in the tabernacle) is understood by the 11th c. commentator Rashi to mean "when you cause to ascend."

What would it mean for survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence to have the light within nurtured and fortified so that their flame, their holy gifts of tenacity, wisdom, self-knowledge and hope could rise up by themselves? What could it mean for people of faith to kindle the hearts and souls of one another so that our passion for justice and freedom arises from within, lifts us up, fortifies our work, strengthens our spirits and illuminates the world?

At this time of year, I'm always reminded of Peter, Paul and Mary's Light One Candle:

(verse 3)

What is the memory that's valued so highly
That we keep it alive in that flame?
What's the commitment to those who have died
That we cry that they've not died in vain?
We have come this far always believing
That justice will somehow prevail.
This is the burden; this is the promise,
This is why we will not fail.

chorus:

Don't let the light go out
It's lasted for so many years.
Don't let the light go out
Let it shine through our love and our tears.
Don't let the light go out!
Don't let the light go out!
Don't let the light go out!

This Hanukkah, let us take Hillel's vision of increasing the light seriously, and work to ignite and fan the flames of justice and freedom within our hearts and hands. May the memories of those we have lost, the commitment to legislative battles yet to be won, and the burden and yoke of our work keep the fire in our souls burning and ascending long after the flames of the Hanukkah Menorah are extinguished.

Rabbi Lisa Gelber
Rabbi Lisa Gelber is Associate Dean of the Rabbinical School and Adjunct Lecturer in the Department of Professional and Pastoral Skills at the Jewish Theological Seminary. A trained spiritual director, Rabbi Gelber incorporates mindful, compassionate listening into her work and everyday life. Editor of numerous works on domestic violence in the Jewish community, Lisa was most recently featured in "I Believe You: Faiths' Response to Intimate Partner Violence." A marathon runner who utilizes running as spiritual practice and ardent supporter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Lisa lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her daughter. Lisa can be reached at auntie2mommy@gmail.com.

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