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Congregation Sons of Abraham

The heart of Jewish life in the La Crosse area for over 100 years

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From the Rabbi

Simcha 2015Hanukkah, 5778

During the second century B.C.E., Antiochus Epiphanes IV, Hellenic king of Syria and ruler of Israel, instituted a program of forced Hellenization for his Jewish subjects, killing anyone who opposed him.  He forbade the practice of Judaism and the study of its holy book, and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem.  A successful revolt to reclaim the Temple was sparked by a family of Priests, Mattathias and his five sons, known as the Hasmoneans and by the cognomen Maccabee, related to the Hebrew word for Hammer (macav).  In the third year of the conflict, 164 B.C.E., the Temple was captured by the Maccabees and rededicated on the 25th day of Kislev that year.  The rededication ceremony marked the resumption of Temple “business as usual” and centered on the lighting of the seven-branched Menorah and the celebration of the eight-day Feast of Booths.  The rekindling of the Menorah, the reclaiming of Judaism’s unique light in a dark pagan world, was considered miraculous, given the strength of the Syrian forces and the allure of Hellenic culture.

Today, Hanukkah (meaning dedication in Hebrew), the Jewish Festival of Lights, is viewed as a festival similar to the festivals of other peoples and cultures which arose over time during the darkest time of the year.  As Anita Diamant so eloquently put it in her chapter on Hanukkah in Living a Jewish Life, “…at its emotional core, Hannukah [sic]…celebrates the return of the light in the heart of winter darkness.”

Each night of Hanukkah, a servant candle (shamash) kindles the number candles corresponding to that day of the holiday.  A meditation follows the lighting ceremony and includes the following injunction:  “During the eight days of Hanukkah these candles are holy [set aside] and we are not permitted to derive utility from them, only to look at them in order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, Your wonders, and Your salvation.

Isn’t it odd that Hanukkah, with its central message of thanksgiving, does not reserve a night for the kindling and contemplation of a single candle alone, recognizing that behind the Hanukkah miracle is a light-giver we should thank and praise?

With all due respect to Peter Yarrow, do Jews, in any candle lighting ceremony throughout the year, ever light just one candle?  We always start with at least two.  Why is that?

I’m still searching for an answer to this question.  Paradoxically, for all our G-d talk, Judaism isn’t G-d centered; rather, we are exhorted time and again to remember that we are created in G-d’s image.  As G-d’s representatives, we are here on earth to do G-dly work, to create new beginnings, to say “let there be light,” to kindle light wherever it is needed in this world.  Perhaps the miracle of Hanukkah is the recognition that a powerful kindling spark resides in all of us.  Proverbs 20:27 says, “The candle of G-d is the soul of Man.”  In Hasidic teaching, the number eight in Hebrew (shmoneh) is an anagram of the word for soul (neshoma).  Is this the message of Hanukkah, eight days to remind us that we’ve been given light-creating souls — souls fueled and nourished by doing what the Torah asks of us?

It doesn’t take much fuel to strengthen your soul for its important work.  Remember the legend of a little bottle of pure Menorah oil that far exceeded its expectation of one day?  A little Torah goes a long way. Where one soul kindles another there is love, hope and miracles.  For eight nights, we watch as one candle lights another and then another, expanding light which banishes darkness.

In total, the candles kindled during Hanukkah number forty-four.  In this number, we may find G-d’s cherished hope—that through our soul work we kindle the light of peace.  Through gamatria, a method which assigns a numerical value to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the number 44 is equivalent to words “One G-d,” (El Echad).  In Malachi 2:10 it says, “Have we not all one father?  Has not one God (El Echad) created us?  Why should we betray, each one his brother, to profane the covenant of our forefathers?”  According to the Bible commentator Rashi, the covenant referred to is the one at Sinai where G-d gave the world the gift of a transcendent morality and an eternal standard of good conduct, the Ten Commandments.

To G-d, Source of light, we offer thanks at Hanukkah and throughout the seasons, and may we all be privileged to use our G-d given lights to build bridges of love and banish darkness forever.

—Rabbi Simcha Prombaum


Photo by Jim Lund,
used with permission.