Hanukkah is a time for miracles, family activities, fried foods and the illumination of ideas. Whether you spell it Chanukah, Channukah, Hannukah or חנוכה, the holiday contains special meaning. The Hanukkah edition of The Two-Way Street offers a drash for each candle, written by a different author. Thank you to our writers, and may you be inspired this holiday season.
If you would like to write for The Two-Way Street, please email Rabbi Beth Janus at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chag Urim Sameach
Shammai and Hillel, two important early rabbis, debated how to light the Hanukkah menorah. Shammai said that all eight lights should be lit on the first day and then one fewer each day. Hillel said that one should be lit the first day and then one more each additional day until all burned on the last day of Hanukkah.
Shammai’s logic underlines the fact that there is less oil (or in our time candles) each night because of what has already been burned. Hillel’s method emphasizes that the miracle of the light continuing is greater each night that the menorah remains lit.
Let’s consider another explanation for Hillel’s method. Great light in the world — the advent of justice, liberty and peace — often appears sudden and bright.
A wall falls. A despot flees. An unjust regime collapses.
Yet that bright flash of change is always preceded by the near-invisible contributions of individuals who worked hard over long periods of time to light the spark.
In the United States today, dozens of organizations and thousands of individual Americans are organizing and mobilizing as they have not in decades to bring about much-needed change in our politics, seeking to replace those who day in and day out are putting personal and party interest above country.
Complacence may have factored in the election of Donald Trump, but the surge in engagement that it set off can and will stop his re-election and bring much-needed change to our broken systems. When that change comes — and come it will — we will start restoring civility to our public discourse, returning stability to our foreign policy and caring for people of all colors, abilities, religions, sexual orientations and economic classes.
By lighting one candle at a time, we will bring about the light and energy which will move the United States toward social justice and civil liberties.
In Israel, too, there is a fight for the soul of the nation. There too, dozens of organizations and thousands of people are working for civil liberties. Others are resisting the brutalization of Palestinians in the West Bank and keeping hope for a two-state solution alive. Government attorneys are struggling to root out corrupt public officials. One candle at a time, these heroes are building a brighter future, sparking change.
Even from abroad we have our role to play in bringing light to Israel. We know just how many of the funders of the settler movement and of right-wing political parties are American — exporting the worst of our dark politics and division.
That’s why it’s so vital that support for peace-makers and for progressives in Israel should also come from Americans. Organizations such as J Street, the New Israel Fund and T’ruah provide opportunities for American Jews to educate themselves and to help build a vigorous not-for-profit sector in Israel devoted to justice and civil liberties and to provide help to those who cannot get what they need otherwise. And here at home, these organizations shore up commitment to a two-state solution and support members of Congress who resist annexation of the West Bank and oppose never-ending settlement expansion.
For many years now, tens of thousands of individuals have been lighting small candles of hope in the US and Israel. Confronted with the darkness of racism and autocracy, their efforts aim to protect the ideals on which both Israel and the US were founded.
May lighting the menorah this Hanukkah remind us that every day it is our responsibility to resist political and economic tyranny. Together, we can and will kindle ever more candles that light the way toward justice, liberty and peace.
Large change — when it comes — will appear sudden to the casual observer. But we will know it was preceded by many people lighting one candle at a time.
Jeremy Ben-Ami is the founder and president of J Street.
Faced with the celebration of the military heroism of the Hasmonean victory over the Syrian occupiers centuries before, the rabbis unearthed (invented?) the story of the miracle of the one cruse of oil that lasted eight days — a divine miracle, not an inspired human victory. And they chose a passage from the Book of Zechariah for the haftarah on Shabbat Hanukkah, a passage that includes the prophetic line (4:6), “Not by might, not by power, but only through My spirit, says Adonai Tzeva’ot.” לֹ֤א בְחַ֙יִל֙ וְלֹ֣א בְכֹ֔חַ כִּ֣י אִם־בְּרוּחִ֔י אָמַ֖ר יְהוָ֥ה צְבָאֽוֹת׃
As Zechariah discerned an alternative to might and power, so can we today. Not by might (the extraordinary military advantage of the IDF), nor by power (the Israeli power to enact decrees that control the lives of Palestinians), but only through My spirit. The Ru’ah Hakodesh is manifest — according to the rabbis of the Talmud, the Hasidic masters and Martin Buber to name a few — when there is hesed, respectful and kind interactions among people: as when the former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters of Combatants for Peace listen closely to each other’s narratives and the Palestinians and Jews of The Parents Circle/Family Fellowship share the grief they endure over members of their families killed in the conflict. Just as such groups reach out to share their experiences with ever growing circles of Israeli Jews and Palestinians, we can begin to discern the movements of the Ru’ah Hakodesh. It is hard work to let go of the mutually vilifying narratives that follow from our traumatic histories. There are good reasons not to trust. But we learn from these heroic pioneers that, with the help of the Ru’ah Hakodesh, healing is possible, peace is imaginable — two nations living side by side, building trust, teaching new generations that it is not by might nor by power that our dream of peace might be attained, but rather through the Ru’ah Hakodesh with which we align when we reach out in hesed.
Rabbi Jacob Staub edits Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations. He is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Each year, as Hanukkah approaches, I have a bit of fun teaching what I call “the real story of Hanukkah.” Offered to adults and older students, I work to broaden the story of what we consider to be the true miracles of the Festival of Lights. Yes, we love teaching about the oil which miraculously lasted eight crazy nights. But that story, as was the goal of the rabbis of the Talmud, removes human action and bravery from the story and instead gives all credit to God. Hanukkah became a story which reminded us that human beings need not challenge authority, nor “rock the boat” in any way. Rather, the message of the “Oil Myth” is that we should wait around for God to save the day, even when the situation seems dire.
There is much more meaning to be found by studying the human beings at the heart of the Hanukkah story. While most of us are familiar with the Maccabees, I find so much more inspiration in the story of the lesser known hero, Judith. The apocryphal Book of Judith tells the tale of the crisis about to befall the town of Bethulia: Holofernes, one of Nebuchadnezzer’s top generals, led an invasion into this Jewish town. The town’s leaders feared that they would not survive the attack, so they planned to surrender within a few days. This would lead to the entire country falling to Assyrian rule. Judith, a young widow, was not willing to give up so quickly and took matters into her own hands.
She and her maid set out for Holofernes’ camp, and when he set eyes on her, Holofernes swiftly invited Judith to a banquet. She encouraged his drinking throughout the night, until he fell asleep in a drunken stupor. Judith took a moment to pray to God, grabbed Holofernes’ sword and decapitated him. His army no longer had a leader, which allowed the Israelites to emerge victorious.
While I would never encourage such a violent act, I still find Judith’s actions to be incredibly bold and brave. Around her, she saw complacency, fear and passivity. At risk were her homeland, her beliefs and her freedom. Thus, Judith stood up against the crowd and asserted herself at a critical moment.
Those of us who are passionate Zionists, who are pro-peace, pro-Israel and also pro-two-state solution, often find ourselves standing alone against a crowd who seem to be drowning in fear. There are so many who are afraid to challenge the status quo in Israel, to question the current government or to speak out against injustices in Israeli governmental policies. Zionism is not a zero-sum game. We can deeply love Israel while also caring about other issues affecting the region. Sometimes, we may feel like the lone voice advocating for human rights for both the Israelis and the Palestinians — as if caring for one means you cannot care for the other. Rather, we can all march proudly forward, embracing our beliefs and standing up for what is most important to us.
This Hanukkah and into 2020, may we all be like Judith: brave, independent thinkers who do what we can to bring about a change in the world. May we be steadfast in our advocacy for Israel, for action, for peace, for compassionate care for the other and for justice for all.
Rabbi Marci N. Bellows is the spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Shalom Rodef Zedek in Chester, CT.
The story of Hanukkah rests upon the Talmudic wisdom of “pirsum hanes” — our obligation, the rabbis taught us, is to publicize the miracle. Practically, we are to place our chanukiyah in the window for all to see the light. The light itself cannot be utilitarian — it must not be used to light a darkened room or reflect the light of the latkes or the sufganiyot that fill our tables. Instead, the light is there to reflect the miraculousness of the Divine; it is a reminder of a time long ago when our hope collapsed with the Temple, but the abundance of God’s love found itself oil that illuminated our future for a week.
Today, as we head into the festival of Hanukkah, as we look to Israel and the Palestinians and the two-state solution, the situation feels to so many of us remarkably bleak. As someone who has been working toward a two-state solution for nearly 30 years, I feel the scarcity of this moment — the ache of so little oil left to fuel our spirits, the deep worry that it will run out, that the attacks from craven right wing politicians in the US and in Israel will snuff out the hope and the energy we have to spark decency and justice in the future.
We who believe in a two-state solution — we who toil for the human rights of Israelis and Palestinians — where do we find hope in this season? As the craven and the callous would have us believe our work is in vain, that peace is an impossible dream. Where is the spiritual oil to fuel our souls and our work in the days ahead?
We find hope in the courage of the Talmudic rabbis, who, in the rubble of the Temple’s ruins, imagined a new Judaism and a new world for themselves: A world of abundant Divine blessing; a world in which every human being is responsible to do our part to heal the shattered parts of our community; a world in which we join together to narrow the gap between the way the world is — heartbroken and full of injustice — to the way the world ought to be — overflowing with Divine love, justice, equality and dignity.
This Hanukkah, as we place our chanukiyot in the windows, we are invited to hold the dreams of the rabbis of old and dream new dreams. Which leaders inspire you today to dream of peace and justice? What organizations inspire you to keep working for a two-state solution? What texts call you forth? What questions animate your work and give you the fuel to hope?
There is no possibility for peace without our abundant courage and creativity, without our taking the risks to see one another’s humanity and dream a new world into being. This Hanukkah, the miracle of the oil must not be merely a fanciful rabbinic tale; it must be the call to every decent soul in our midst to believe in the abundant possibility of peace and the lighting of each candle the reaffirmation of our commitment to this work day by glorious day.
Rabbi Michael Adam Latz is lead rabbi of Shir Tikvah Congregation, Minneapolis, MN, and co-chair of the Board of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev asks why we remember the miracle of Purim with a seudah (festive meal) and celebration, but we remember the miracle of Hanukkah only with thanksgiving and praise. During the days of Haman, our physical safety was threatened; Haman attempted to obliterate us. We respond by using our bodies to rejoice physically. The Greeks, on the other hand, tried to outlaw Torah and faith; our souls were threatened. So we answer spiritually by reciting Hallel, our Psalms of praise, every day of Hanukkah.
This teaching reminds us that our physical safety is not the only worry that we should have. We always also have to think about our spiritual health. In Israel today, the emphasis is usually on the physical safety of Jewish Israelis. The government in Israel constructed an actual wall to protect our bodies from terrorists. The right wing today builds settlements because they believe it is the only way to ensure that all of Israel remain as part of the country. However, we need to be just as concerned about our spiritual lives. What does it do to a society to be occupiers for decades? How are the soldiers who serve in the territories affected by their inhumane roles? What is the vision of the future of the Jewish homeland if we are spiritually compromised?
This Hanukkah, may Rabbi Levi Yitzhak inspire us to reflect on our spiritual well-being. And may our Zionism always compel us to fight for justice physically and spiritually.
Rabbi Beth Janus is the co-chair of the Philadelphia Rabbinic and Cantorial J Street Cabinet and editor of the Two-Way Street.
There is a well-known dispute about the lighting of the Hanukkah candles. Beyt Hillel says that one lights a single candle the first night, and adds a candle every night until there are eight candles. Beyt Shammai says that one lights eight candles the first night and diminishes the number by one every night until the last night when a single candle is lit. Centuries later, two Amoraim argued over the reason for the two customs. Their opinions are not very satisfying and the fact that the argument was had centuries later, probably points to the fact that the original reason was lost.
Light is a powerful metaphor. There is a light that is saved for the righteous at the end of days. A light in the Temple was the sign of God’s presence. (Probably the reason for the appearance of a miracle of light centuries after the story was first recorded.) Two examples of light intertwined with justice come to mind. First, Isaiah 58. After laying out the demands of a real fast in which bread is given to the hungry, clothing to the naked and a roof to the homeless, God says: “Then shall your light burst through like the dawn…” The second instance is a verse from Psalms 37. The demand there is to leave all to God and trust in God and “God will cause your vindication to shine forth like the light, the justice of your case, like the noonday sun.”
We follow the custom of Beyt Hillel — and thus we increase the light slowly. However, in the fierce urgency of now, we need the light of justice to burst through like the dawn. We need to follow Beyt Shammai and shine the blinding afternoon sun of justice onto the dark places of injustice: the occupation. The daily, quotidian humiliations of oppression; the jailing and killing of Palestinians; the destruction of Palestinian homes and Bedouin villages. There is no more time. In this day, at this moment, we need the harshness and the blinding din of Beyt Shammai to awaken us from slumber. We need the State of Israel to immediately end the occupation; to desist from the systemic oppression of millions of Palestinians — not because it will be better for us, but because it is just. We know that it will still be a struggle even after the first shock of withdrawal; the light might dim slowly night after night. However, we can no longer wait for an incremental solution to a moral abomination.
Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Cohen is Professor of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University.
In the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), the rabbis ask “Mai Hanukkah?” — “What is Hanukkah?” This question can be answered in different ways. The rabbis in the Talmud focus their answer on the divine miracle of the cruse of oil that lasted for eight days. The first book of Maccabees, however, focuses on the military revolt against Antiochus and the Hellenizers. Jewish tradition instructs us to “publicize the miracle” by lighting candles and placing them in our windows for the world to see. But which is the miracle we are publicizing? The divine, supernatural miracle of the oil? Or the miracle of human courage and strength in fighting against oppression? Is Hanukkah celebration of divine power or of human action? As the Talmud asks, “What is Hanukkah?”
Stories can be spun in different ways for different purposes, and the story of Hanukkah has taken on different meanings in different times and settings. Perhaps for us, these two versions of the Hanukkah story can go hand-in-hand. The miracle of the oil would not have been possible without human courage, without the Maccabees taking the initiative and having the faith and determination to rededicate the Temple and light the menorah in the first place. The message of Hanukkah is that times of darkness require us not to despair, but to find the courage and hope to light that first light, to take action, to bring light into our world and to make miracles possible. Like the Maccabees who rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem, so may we rededicate ourselves this Hanukkah to working for democracy, justice and peace.
Rabbi Chai Levy is rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, CA.
As Hanukkah comes to an end, what gifts did you receive and give that will make 2020 a better year? What miracles will we seek and what actions will we take to realize them? Share your inspirational stories with us at Shaina@jstreet.org.